O f the nine candidates running in Louisiana’s judicial races this year, all of them are women. This is certainly welcome news for those who want to see more women in elected office in the Bayou State, where strides have been slow.
Of course, this means that the four judicial elections on the March 25 ballot will give us four women judges, three of which will be replacing male successors. That’s a net gain of three new women representatives on the bench — a figure that should help Louisiana move the needle a bit in terms of national rankings.
In a report last year, the Newcomb College Institute of Tulane University found that 31 percent of the judges serving in Louisiana were women. That’s up from 27 percent in 2011, when the State University of New York at Albany published a similar study. (The latter document also ranked Louisiana near the middle of all states in terms of the percentage of women elected to the bench.)
That’s at least a start, based on the Newcomb study authored by Salmon A. Shomade of Emory University in Atlanta and Sally J. Kenney of Tulane University.
“Louisiana often ranks last or next to last in analyses of the pay gap between men and women, maternal and infant mortality, or percentage of women in the state legislature,” they write. “Some political scientists have gone so far as to argue that women either cannot win in the South or face more significant gender-based hurdles than in other regions. Yet women do relatively well in partisan judicial elections in Louisiana, hold positions of judicial leadership, and are relatively well represented in federal courts.”
That trend definitely carries over into this spring’s judicial races, of which one contest has actually already been decided. Allison Hopkins Penzato of Mandeville was elected without opposition during qualifying to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal. She’s taking over for retired Judge Ernie Drake Jr.
Penzato, however, is just the first of what will be four female judges holding new gavels this year. The other candidates running, and their respective seats sought, include:
— 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal in Lafayette: Vanessa Waguespack Anseman, Candyce Perret and Susan Theall are all vying to replace Justice Jimmy Genovese, who upgraded to the state Supreme Court last election cycle.
— 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in New Orleans: Judge Paula Brown and Judge Tiffany Gautier Chase are in a gavel-versus-gavel brawl to pick up where retired Judge Dennis Bagneris left off.
— Civil District Court (Division B) in New Orleans: Rachael Johnson, Suzy Montero and Marie Williams are allowing voters to select another woman for this seat, which was vacated by now-4th Circuit Court Judge Regina Bartholomew Woods.
While a net gain of three seats is nothing to sneeze at, Shomade and Kenney wrote in their Newcomb study that population estimates need to be taken into account too. For example, while women hold 31 percent of all judgeships in Louisiana, they also account for 51 percent of the overall population.
The stats read a little better on paper when you look only at the federal courts based in our state — meaning three U.S. District courts and the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. In that area alone in Louisiana women constitute 40 percent of all judgeships.
But again, many believe progress is arriving too slowly. State Rep. Helena Moreno, a New Orleans Democrat, is among those who see greater opportunities for women to succeed in politics and other fields. She’s the founder of Ignite Advocacy Network, a nonprofit group created to “advance policies that help women and their families.”
Moreno’s Ignite isn’t geared toward getting more women elected into office, or even recruiting the right kind of candidates to influence the statistics mentioned in this column. But the organization does seem to be at the forefront of larger sentiment in this state — that women want a larger share of the political apparatus and they’re ready to take it.
Another group, Emerge Louisiana, is starting to raise money in the state this month to establish a seven-month candidate training program for Democratic women. Meanwhile, other organizations like the Louisiana Federation of Republican Women are helping develop conservative women candidates to put on the ballot.
In the Louisiana Legislature, where Moreno serves, some very meager headway has been made. The National Conference of State Legislatures recently moved the state up a single spot for female representation in the House and Senate to 44th in the nation.
There are 22 women in the Legislature, including 17 in the House and five in the Senate, accounting for 15 percent of both chambers. None of them serve in key leadership positions. Nationally, approximately 1,830 women will serve in 50 state legislatures in 2017, making up 24.8 percent of those bodies. That’s a barely noticeable increase over 24.4 percent in 2016.
As such, the judiciary still appears to be the prime place for elected women to succeed in Louisiana and maybe even close the gap with their male counterparts. Fielding quality candidates, though, is the most important part of the equation. Without electable women on the ballot — or a monopoly on qualifying like we’re seeing this year — progress will not continue.
As Shomade and Kenney noted in their Newcomb study, there is more to be accomplished. “Just because Louisiana is uncharacteristically average, rather than at the bottom of state rankings, is no reason for complacency,” they wrote.