Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



For most individuals and organizations, state courts--especially state trial courts-are the "law" for all effective purposes. State courts are America's courts. But, we know surprisingly little about state court judges despite their central and powerful role in lawmaking and dispute resolution. This lack of information is especially significant because judges' backgrounds have important implications for the work of courts. The characteristics of those who sit in judgment affect the internal workings of courts as well as the external perception of those courts and judges. The background of judges will influence how they make decisions and can impact the public's acceptance of those decisions. We aim to address this knowledge gap by collecting demographics on state judges in every state. We discovered, however, that the task is extraordinarily difficult due to many factors, including a lack of transparency and an abundant complexity in our state court systems. In this Article, we describe and evaluate the difficulty of studying state courts and the importance of continued efforts to do so. We explain a variety of methods to overcome some of the research challenges. We then lay out our findings on state court demographics. The process and outcome of our project can inform study of the judiciary and its place in our political system. We hope too they will encourage and facilitate future empirical study of state courts.