Women in Law Summit session focused on value of a judiciary with more women, underrepresented groups
While the number of judges from diverse backgrounds is growing, a judiciary that genuinely represents all Canadians contributes to the overall legitimacy of the legal system, Superior Court of Ontario judge Renée Pomerance told attendees at Canadian Lawyer’s Women in Law Summit.
“The court derives its legitimacy from public confidence in the administration of justice,” Justice Pomerance said during a “fireside chat” session with Teresa Donnelly, West Region sexual violence Crown prosecutor for the Ministry of the Attorney General. Factors affecting that legitimacy include having a judiciary that reflects the proportion of women and racialized groups in Canadian society.
Donnelly also suggested that "more can be done" to make the court system more representative of Canadian society.
Justice Pomerance, a Crown prosecutor in Toronto before being appointed a judge in 2006, noted that a diverse judiciary “symbolizes diversity and inclusion and enhances the reputation of the administration of justice.”
There are other good reasons to have more women and those from diverse backgrounds serving as judges at all levels of the legal system, she said. One is the educative function that a diverse judiciary provides.
Justice Pomerance pointed out that having women and those from underrepresented groups in the judiciary “tends to shatter those stereotypes that suggest that we don’t belong there,” she said. And the more the judiciary reflects Canada, “the more apparent is that they belong there.”
Another reason, Justice Pomerance said, is that a judiciary that includes more women and those from diverse backgrounds “speaks to the fairness” of an appointment process that is based on merit.
There is also the value of having role models in the judiciary that those from underrepresented groups can look up to, as it allows them to think they belong on the bench.
More diversity in the judiciary challenges the status quo
A final reason Pomerance presented to the attendees at the summit, which was sponsored by Leap Legal Software and Cassels Brock & Blackwell, is that members of diverse and underrepresented groups “are more inclined to see discriminatory practices that might look . . . neutral on their face.”
The more diversity, the more people will “look at the status quo and challenge those principles and rules that really need reconsideration in today’s modern world.”
Justice Pomerance added that a diverse judiciary can also bring fresh perspectives on existing “principles and rules that might well be based on inertia, or old standards, or tradition.”
While it is not clear if women and those from diverse backgrounds “think differently” as judges than the primarily male judges appointed in the past, Justice Pomerance said what is clear is that they do bring different life experiences and perspectives to the work they do.
The central goal of a judge is to understand and apply the perspectives of others, she said. “So, we have to ask ourselves ‘Am I thinking in terms myths and stereotypes?’ Am I allowing any of my own unconscious biases to enter the courtroom?’” Such critical thinking can “have a great influence on the development of the law.”
Justice Pomerance also noted the importance of distinguishing between the appearance of diversity and “what some have called substantive diversity.”
She said that the latter is more than just what a court looks like on the surface. “We’re talking about a better better-equipped court to dispense equal justice.” And that means all those on the judiciary should “look forward.”
“It would be a Pyrrhic victory if the only judges that thought about gender equality are women and the only judges who thought about racial inequities were racialized and judges. The point is to share that information with everyone as part of the social context.”
Being a judge ‘enormously fulfilling vocation’
Justice Pomerance, who spent 18 years as a criminal prosecutor until she was appointed to the superior court in Windsor as a judge, said that while being a member of the judiciary is challenging, it is also an “enormously fulfilling vocation.”
The role of a judge provides a lot of “intellectual gratification,” she said, but throughout her time on the bench, she has been “profoundly humbled” by the experience.
“My most rewarding moments are not those involving abstract legal issues or legal debates,” she said. “They have been in courtrooms that are largely absent of spectators in cases of no academic significance.”
Being a trial judge “exposes you to the full spectrum of what it means to be human – human strength and human frailty - – and every case is a unique constellation of those factors.”
The times she cherishes most are those when she can “help with someone’s healing or rehabilitation process, or a person’s recognition of their own self-worth.”
She said that the intellectual stimulation of being in the judiciary is gratifying, but the human aspect of her role has made it “an extraordinary” 16 years on the bench.
“I can tell you that I still can’t wait to get into the courtroom in the morning. It remains an infinitely fascinating job.”
Justice Pomerance admitted that the application process for becoming a judge is labour-intensive, and it takes time to answer the questions on the form. There is also the need to line up references.
However, she said, the process is also a good exercise in “self-exploration,” as lawyers must think through why they want to be a judge and what would make them a good judge.
“There are good reasons and bad reasons for wanting to be a judge,” she said, joking that thinking it is an excellent way to slip easily into retirement is not a good one, given there is “a lot of hard work” involved.
“But if you love the law, if you want to assist people in resolving disputes, and if you want to join an incredible collegial group of individuals, those are good reasons to apply.”
Donnelly also commented that potential applicants not be deterred if they don't get chosen the first time they apply.
“If you don’t succeed the first time, don’t take that as saying you shouldn’t be a judge. You have to be persistent and have to keep applying.”