Sumi Lee Tackles Diversity on the Bench
The new head of judicial diversity outreach discusses her vision for pioneering the role using collaboration, outreach and data

by Jessica Folker

As the Head of Judicial Diversity Outreach — a first-of-its kind position created by the Colorado General Assembly in 2019 — Sumi Lee is applying a data-driven approach to diversity on the bench.

“I’m not yet aware of other states having a position like this,” Lee said. “So, it’s been very exciting to get an opportunity to create a brand-new initiative on behalf of the judicial department.” She started in the role in February, though the Judicial Department officially announced her new role May 28.

The goal of the position, which is housed within the State Court Administrator’s Office, is to address the lack of judicial diversity in Colorado’s courts. Lee’s responsibilities include education and outreach to attorneys and law students about judicial vacancies and the application process as well as working on existing judicial programs and committees.

She had hoped to hit the road as part of a listening tour of the state’s judicial districts to learn about local needs, but the pandemic has forced those conversations onto virtual platforms for now. Lee plans to pair what she learns from different communities with data to design programs tailored to each judicial district and help ensure the makeup of the bench reflects that of the community.

One of the glaring disparities, she said, is there are only eight black judges, or 2% of Colorado’s judges, in a state that is 6% black. “What’s more alarming is that just two years ago, at the end of 2018, there was only one black judge in the entire state,” Lee added.

The data also indicates a critical need for more American Indian judges, particularly in the Four Corners region, she said, where Native Americans make up more than 7% of the population but don’t hold any judicial offices. Lee plans to talk to community members there to come up with opportunities and programs to address the disparity. “I firmly believe that this is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. “What’s going to work in Denver County may not necessarily work for the Four Corners.”

“Sumi has a vision for this work that includes both data-driven analysis as well as relationship building,” said Brenidy Rice, SCAO director of court services, in a news release. Lee said she aims to make information about the demographics of the bench widely available for anyone who wants to learn about the make-up of the bench in a given community or county. She also hopes to collect and share data on how judges become judges, such as information on the career path they took and the resources that were most helpful.

A lack of data makes it hard to identify the problems in the judicial pipeline, Lee said, because Colorado doesn’t mandate the collection of most demographic information for attorneys. “I would love to get to a point where we collect good data so that we can tell, is it that not enough diverse attorneys are applying to become judges?” she said. “Or is it that we don’t have enough law students who are diverse becoming attorneys? [The data] would help us diagnose that pipeline.”

Increasing diversity on the bench means eliminating barriers long before an attorney reaches the stage where they’re ready to apply for a judicial position, according to Lee. “When I think about the pathway to the bench … I’m thinking well beyond that to what are the resources and conversations that we need to have with young attorneys, or law students or with high school students so that we can get a more diverse population to become attorneys,” she said.

She is working on creating judicial department externship and internship opportunities and encouraging more judges to take on interns and externs. As a law student, Lee was an extern for a number of judges and after graduation was a law clerk. “Those experiences were critical in shaping my view of the judiciary and just learning what judges do on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

“What their work actually entails has been very important in shaping my view of judges, and perhaps for someone that may change whether they see themselves in that position where they may have not thought that was an option before.”

Lee was born in Korea and grew up in Colorado. She left for the East Coast to attend Georgetown University and New York Law School but moved back to Colorado for her clerkship, which she called “the best first job I could have had as a young attorney.” She was also part of the judicial branch’s inaugural class of “Sherlocks,” or self-represented litigant coordinators, and later practiced as a trust and estate attorney in the private sector.

While her position is new, Lee noted work on judicial diversity has been underway for years, both in Colorado’s courts and the broader legal community. She considers partnerships and collaboration a critical part of her job and said she’d like to work with as many people or groups as possible as part of her outreach efforts.

She’ll have support from colleagues in the SCAO’s Court Services Division, including several who are working on access to justice and inclusion programs. She also looks forward to working with the Center for Legal Inclusiveness on the future of its Bench Dream Team, a group of volunteer justices, judges and others who put on mentorship and educational programs to encourage diversity on the bench.

“My ultimate goal is for any time anyone walks into a courthouse, anywhere in the state, I want the courthouse and the bench to reflect — and to be the natural extension of — the community that they live in,” Lee said.

“I have been reflecting about my role in the context of the recent events, [which have] reaffirmed why the work of improving diversity on the bench is so important — that having proper representation at every level of the legal system is an important part of addressing the inequities of the justice system.”

This article appeared in the June 15 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read other articles from that issue, order a copy online.