Monday, December 20, 2010

Professor Sylvia Lazos Fights for Equality

Sylvia Lazos, Justice Myron Leavitt Professor of Law, has been researching issues of diversity since arriving at the UNLV Boyd School of Law in 2003. She has written on a variety of issues, including how initiatives by the electorate affect the civil rights of minorities, the difficulties in appointing judges who are minorities and women to the federal bench, and in general, why the concept of "diversity" has not easily gained access to mainstream legal thought.

Her latest project is an empirical investigation of whether judicial performance evaluations are fair to minorities and women judges. Her interest in this project began when she was enlisted to help form a panel for the National Association of Women Judges for the purpose of commenting on a recent controversy in Missouri. The Missouri State Bar administered judicial performance evaluations that were published on the Internet in order to aid voters to cast an informed vote in retention elections. However, a recent statistical study had revealed that the survey used in Missouri scored women judges eight points lower than men, and black judges ten points lower than white judges, on a 100-point scale.

In the upcoming issue of Law and Society Review, Lazos will publish with her co-author, political scientist Dr. Rebecca Gill, an analysis of the judicial evaluation polls conducted by an independent consultant hired by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The judicial evaluation poll data from 1998-2008 found that even after statistically controlling for judicial qualifications and performance records, women on average score 11.5 points lower than their male colleagues. Lazos and Gill attribute this rating difference to systemic unconscious bias, because there is no evidence that women judges as a group are less qualified than men. Unconscious bias, as distinct from explicit prejudices, cause people who believe they are neutral to nonetheless make judgments linked to race, gender or other factors.

Lazos and research assistant Mallory Waters have just completed analysis of another data set of judicial performance evaluations from Missouri, also controlling for qualitative and performance factors and found similar results in this data set. Even after controlling for experience, education, and other factors, women judges on average are rated 10 points lower than male judges.

In the next phase of Lazos's work, she will be looking to enlist the help of local judges to observe how the court room is different for women judges as opposed to male judges, and to confirm her theory that gender bias is at work in explaining the consistently lower evaluations that women receive in this state.

Lazos’s other research interests are in the area of education. She has been serving on the Clark County Superintendent's Equal Opportunities Advisory Commission since January 2010. Just recently named a Lincy Institute Fellow, she is working with colleagues from the UNLV College of Education to determine the efficacy of English Language Learner programs currently in use at the elementary school level at CCSD. This research, funded by The Lincy Institute, will help identify the teaching practices that are most effective. These research-based recommendations will be presented as part of a Brookings Mountain West event in May 2011. Lazos believes that this research work is the beginning of a truly collaborative research partnership with CCSD

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