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Jimmy Carter's Most Important Legacy: Female Judges

Ralph Barrera-Pool/Getty Images

Former president Jimmy Carter announced yesterday that he has been diagnosed with cancer. Often cited as an exemplar of post-presidency productivity, one significant aspect of his in-office legacy stands out: Carter appointed 41 female judges—five times as many as all his predecessors combined.

Carter set a precedent for those who followed him: Since his presidency, with the notable exception of Reagan, every president has surpassed Carter’s record. As of August this year President Obama has appointed a record 131 female judges, including two female Supreme Court justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. 

Carter’s increase in female judicial appointments was not accidental. He said in a 1980 speech that he was “determined to see that women and minorities, whose destinies have so often depended upon the kind of justice that our courts can provide, should be included in those judgeships.”

His outlook has been borne out in countless studies that have shown the impact of gender on the legal process. A 2005 Yale study found that in sexual harassment and sex discrimination cases the gender of judges “mattered more than [their] ideology in determining outcomes.” Female judges ruled in favor of plaintiffs more often than male judges, and male judges who were on a bench alongside female judges ruled in plaintiffs’ favor more than twice as much as judges on all-male panels. Last year The New York Times reported that judges with daughters, who are exposed to the reality of women’s lived experiences, are more likely to vote in favor of women’s rights.

In recent years Carter has continued his support of women’s rights. His 2014 book, Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power, advocated for international agreements to quell violence against women and to address the societal factors that make such violence acceptable. "There is a pervasive denial of equal rights to more than half of all human beings," wrote Carter in the book’s introduction. Earlier this year he announced that violence against women was going to be his “highest priority” for the rest of his life.