Early in her career, Barbara Johnson was a big-city prosecutor who never planned to become a judge.
She was having lunch with lawyer friends one day in the mid-1980s, when the group of women made guesses about who would become the next Superior Court judge. At that time, there had never been a woman on the bench in Clark County.
They pressed Johnson to apply.
Johnson, a former deputy prosecutor in King County who had moved to Vancouver and was working at a private law firm, considered the idea. Though unprecedented in Clark County, women judges were common in Seattle, so the idea didn’t scare her.
“It seemed perfectly normal up there,” Johnson said.
When a position came open two years later, she applied to the governor for a mid-term appointment.
Today, 25 years later, Johnson is the longest-tenured Superior Court judge in Clark County. Yet she is still a minority on the bench.
There is only one other woman on the Superior Court bench: Judge Diane Woolard. She took office 13 years after Johnson. And in the 12 years since Woolard donned her black robe, another woman hasn’t taken one of the eight other Superior Court positions.
Instead, five men have been sworn into office for the first time.
It’s a recurring theme that has puzzled attorneys. Female judges offer a unique mix of temperament and life experience, attorneys say, so why aren’t more women stepping up? “I think it’s just important to have diversity because the people who come to the court are a diverse bunch,” said Vancouver private practice attorney Suzan Clark.
What causes the disparity among the county’s jurists? Will it change when the next generation of judges take the bench?
County falls behind
Statistics show Clark County has the lowest percentage of female Superior Court judges among Washington’s most populous counties. In King County, for instance, 17 women fill more than half of the 33 positions, and in Pierce County, 10 of 23 Superior Court judges are women.
Including District Court judges only slightly raises Clark County’s diversity. Overall, 25 percent of the 16 judges on Clark County’s District Court and Superior Court benches are women — compared with the 33 percent average for female judges in Washington, according to statistics from Washington’s Administrative Office of the Courts.
And it’s not a matter of there being fewer female attorneys. An increasing number of women are practicing law now compared with 20 years ago, state experts say, and it seems Clark County and smaller, more rural counties haven’t caught up.
“It’s an issue we’re still dealing with,” Woolard said. “Compared to metropolitan areas, like King, Pierce and Spokane counties, we are (behind). Compare us to Cowlitz and Lewis (and) we aren’t.”
Judges and female attorneys in town offer differing opinions about why Clark County has few women on the bench. Some of them point to the county’s suburban makeup that attracts families, pointing out that women attorneys with young kids sometimes don’t want to take on a jurist’s high-profile, intense job.
Kelli Osler became the county’s first female District Court judge in 2010. Previously, she served as a major crimes deputy prosecutor and then a court commissioner. As a mother of two teenagers, Osler said being a judge would have been much more difficult for her a few years ago.
“A big hindrance is having younger kids,” Osler said. Many law firms have a job-sharing program for working mothers, unlike the regimented schedules for judges who are required to oversee busy daily dockets, she said.
Neither Woolard nor Johnson had young children at home when they took office. Woolard, now 68, was a caseworker for the Department of Social and Health Services for 13 years before becoming an attorney in 1985. Her only son was grown, so she didn’t have limitations at home, she said.
She said one of the reasons she chose to become a judge was to bring more diversity to the bench. Becoming a judge appeared to be the next logical step in her career, Woolard said.
Woolard said she doesn’t feel like gender discrimination is the issue. “It’s not like women don’t feel comfortable because of their gender,” the judge said. “It’s a choice they make with their careers.”
Johnson also didn’t think there was resistance to having a female judge when she took office in 1987. She pointed to several male Superior Court judges who encouraged and helped show her the ropes when she took the bench.
Johnson, who doesn’t have children, agreed with Woolard that becoming a judge is a matter of choice that may be easier without restrictions at home.
“I think there’s more reluctance for women to put themselves forward,” Johnson said.
Clark, a longtime attorney in town, agreed. “If you are a full-time mom and a full-time lawyer, that’s a pretty tough assignment,” she said.
Unlike some metropolitan areas, Clark said, Clark County “is conducive to raising a family.” She said she also practices law in Multnomah County and doesn’t see the same trend. About half the judges in Multnomah County Circuit Court are female.
“I really think that’s what holds some women back,” Clark said.
On the other hand, Camara Banfield, a major crimes deputy prosecutor who has applied twice for a judge position, doesn’t believe parenthood should factor into women’s seeking the bench. A mother of three, Banfield said motherhood hasn’t been an issue for her — even though people have questioned whether she’s ready because of it.
“When I was going to put my name in, someone said, ‘Why? You have kids,’” Banfield said. “‘You can’t be a mommy and a dynamic attorney at the same time.’ That’s bull.”
Sonya Langsdorf, a Clark County District Court judge who has two younger children, also doesn’t see motherhood as a disqualification from the job.
“In my opinion, it is tough to juggle parenthood with any full-time job,” she said by email. “I don’t believe it is unique to being a judge.”
So is the lack of female judges an issue of interest — or of opportunity?
Some attorneys point out that there’s only been a handful of women who have applied or run for a Superior Court judgeship over the last three years, namely Banfield, Vancouver attorney Josephine Townsend and Superior Court Commissioner Carin Schienberg. In comparison, nine men have expressed interest in the last three Superior Court openings. Superior Court judges are elected to office, but if they step down midterm, the governor must appoint a replacement.
Earning $148,836 a year, they preside over criminal cases, civil cases involving more than $75,000, divorces, probate cases, juvenile cases and other matters.
“There just hasn’t been a lot of interest,” Clark said.
For Banfield, an attorney of nine years, the issue has been cracking into leadership positions. Without experience on state advisory boards or as an officer of the county’s bar association, it’s difficult to position yourself to become a judge, she said.
Banfield believes that in Clark County, those positions are dominated by men.
“The numbers are reflecting that Clark County is still lagging behind,” Banfield said. “It takes some time and it takes some courage.”
Woolard and Johnson both appear to be toward the end of their careers on the Superior Court bench; Woolard has already announced she will not run again in four years, when her term expires.
Will more women step up? Johnson thinks so.
She pointed to the recent appointments of District Court commissioners Dayann Liebman and Kristen Parcher and District Court judges Osler and Langsdorf. All four took office in the past three years.
Commissioners perform many of the same tasks as judges. District Court judges preside over misdemeanor criminal cases, such as shoplifting and drunken driving, and civil cases involving smaller sums.
Osler and Banfield said they hear more women considering the bench.
“I think there are more women putting their names in the hat than before,” Osler said.
The importance of having women on the bench, attorneys and judges say, is having a well-rounded, diverse judiciary with varying life experiences.
“You wouldn’t want to have an all-men bench and you wouldn’t want to have an all-women bench,” Banfield said.
Each person, man or woman, black or white, bring a different lens to the law based on his or background, Banfield said. That’s important when presiding over cases involving people of various income levels, background and ethnicity, attorneys say.
Clark, who has been encouraged by a number of local attorneys to run for a judgeship, said she plans to seek the bench at some point in the next few years. Banfield said she plans to apply again.
Woolard said she doesn’t want the county to regress.
“I would sure hate for us to go from two to none.”