Since 2000, Carol L. Van Horn has served on the bench of the Court of Common Pleas for the 39th Judicial District comprised of Franklin and Fulton counties.
In her keynote speech, Van Horn spoke about the journey of women in the legal profession beginning with Myra Bradwell, who paved the way in 1872.
Bradwell asked the Illinois legislature for a license to practice law and was denied.
“She had the fortitude to take her case the whole way to the United States Supreme Court to ask for the right to practice law,” Van Horn said.
Despite losing her case, Van Horn said Bradwell was a pioneer for women in the legal field.
Eighteen years later, Bradwell got her license to practice law in Illinois, she said.
It took 30 more years, from 1890 to 1920, for all states to get to that same conclusion, Van Horn said.
The first year that women were permitted to practice law in any state was 1920, she said.
In the early 1990s, enrollment of women in law school nationwide was 50 percent — meaning that the classes were equally divided between men and women.
But, Van Horn said equality in the classroom did not mean that equality had been realized in the legal profession.
In 2011, 22 percent of all private practice attorneys were women and only 17 percent were partners (in the firm), Van Horn said.
“Nationwide, only 27 percent of the judges are women. That’s about what we have here in Pennsylvania as well,” she said.
Having women on the bench is important, Van Horn said.
“I think that diversity of all types on the bench helps promote the public’s perception of fairness in the institution,” she said. “There’s a critical need for gender and racial inclusion on the bench, because this type of descriptive representation of who we are inspires trust, credibility and confidence in the judicial system.”
She said that women have come a long way from the time of Myra Bradwell — but more must be done.
“All women need to be reminded regularly of how far women have come in the legal profession, and to not take opportunities for granted and to think of women who have paved the path before us,” she said.
Her challenge to all women was to remember those who came before and be a pioneer for those women to come.
“While I take pride in being the first women elected to the bench in the 39th Judicial District back in 1999, I’m even more proud of the fact that the second (Angela Krom) was elected just 10 years later,” she said.
She celebrated that in the 39th Judicial District two of the five judges are women at a time when more than one third of Pennsylvania’s counties don’t have one woman on the bench.
“That’s success,” Van Horn said.
For her, the ultimate success will be when she is referred to as simply Judge Van Horn without reference to her gender.
“I’m very grateful that our three daughters are of a generation of women who have opportunities to do anything that they choose — to be anything that they chose, and to have no limits,” she said.
Two of her daughters have chosen careers in education and one has chosen a career in law.
“I’m grateful for Myra Bradwell, who took the first step back in 1872 to secure the right to choice for women in the legal profession. It’s on her shoulders that I stand and there will be many more standing on mine,” Van Horn said.
She is a member of the Juvenile Court Section of the State Conference of Trial Judges and serves as a Juvenile Court Judge. She was appointed to the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Committee of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency in 2009.