The Gavel Gap: What It Is & Why It Matters

By Christina Lorey

December 14, 2022

Six of the seven justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court are women, tying the state with Oregon for the second-highest percentage of women. But all are white.

For most of its history, Wisconsin has had one of the least racially diverse courts in the country, ranking 45th in what’s known as the “gavel gap”: the difference between the percentage of Black women in the population and Black women in the courts.

The Good News

During his first three years in office, Gov. Tony Evers made 36 judicial appointments: 23 women, and 15 people of color. Six were Black women– more than doubling the number of Black judges in Wisconsin!

These appointments are entirely intentional. In 2019, Evers created the Judicial Selection Advisory Committee: a 16-member group working on making the judiciary better reflect the state’s population.

Why It Matters

Having a more diverse judicial system, where judges come from a variety of backgrounds, creates more equity. Even judges have implicit bias, so it’s important to have different opinions, lived experiences, and informed perspectives to give more equitable sentences.

The Bad News

Less than three-percent of all current Wisconsin law students are Black women. According to 2022 numbers, there were 17 Black women enrolled at Marquette Law School (out of 594 total students.) There were 16 (out of 757 students) at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

The Solution

There’s no quick fix– getting more women seated on the benches of Wisconsin courts starts from the time those women are children, according to the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers.

To help with that, WAAL established several scholarship and mentorship programs to show Black girls that legal careers are both possible and affordable, as well as to encourage Black women in the legal field to run for judge.

Click here for a list of college grants and scholarships available to Black women.

The Gavel Gap: What It Is & Why It Matters
A cardboard cutout at the future site of the forthcoming Capitol statue.


A statue honoring Vel Phillips, the first Black woman to graduate from University of Wisconsin Law School in 1951, is currently under construction for the corner of West Main and South Carroll at the Wisconsin State Capitol (across from the Park Hotel.) Vel broke the state’s color barrier in 1971, when she was named to the Milwaukee County bench as Wisconsin’s first Black female judge. She was also the first woman elected to the Common Council of Milwaukee (in 1956) and the first African American elected Secretary of State in 1978.

Once complete, the statue will be the first Capitol monument honoring a Black woman in the country

According to a project director from Sculpture Milwaukee, the hope is to have it installed by the end of 2023 or early 2024.

Click here to learn more.

The Gavel Gap: What It Is & Why It Matters
Nia Trammell, Mabel Watson Raimey, & Vel Phillips

Other History Makers in Wisconsin’s Legal System

Nia Trammell became the first Black woman in the Dane County Circuit Court’s 172-year history to sit on the bench after she was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers in 2020. Wisconsin now has 10 female justices who are Black– the most in its history. Nia says her father, an attorney, inspired her to pursue a law career. 

Mabel Watson Raimey became the first Black woman to earn a Bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison in 1918, but was fired from her teaching job after her employer found out she was Black (she had white ancestors, so people often assumed she was, too). Mabel then enrolled in Marquette Law School, where she was the first Black woman to attend, and later, the state’s first Black female attorney. 


  • Christina Lorey

    Christina is an Edward R. Murrow-winning journalist and former producer, reporter, and anchor for TV stations in Madison and Moline. When she’s not writing or asking questions, you can find her volunteering with Girls on the Run, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and various mental health organizations.

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