by Michele Storms
Note: The ACLU of Washington by policy does not endorse or oppose candidates for elected or appointed office.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, which would make her the nation’s first Black woman justice, is as remarkable now as it was unimaginable for me as a child or even as a college student.
Black women of my generation who aspired to become lawyers rarely saw ourselves at the highest levels of the profession. There were few ahead of us. We mostly carved our own paths.
When I graduated from law school in the late 1980s, Black women were almost entirely absent from the federal judiciary. It was hard enough to imagine a career as an attorney. Before I went to college, I had never even met a lawyer, and I certainly did not see any Black women on the Supreme Court. In fact, Sandra Day O’Connor, a white woman, had only recently been confirmed as the first woman justice in 1981. Before O’Connor, Thurgood Marshall, who was confirmed in 1967 and served for 24 years, stood alone as the only justice who was not a white man to sit on the nation’s highest court.
Today, the number of Black women on the federal bench has grown but remains far too few. Only 4% of federal judges who are women identify as Black, or Black and multiracial, and more than half of those judges were only recently appointed by Presidents Obama or Biden. These low numbers are especially striking when compared with the 78.5% of judges on the federal bench who identify as white.
The persistent underrepresentation of Black women on the federal judiciary speaks to the way our systems have worked to exclude Black people and others from marginalized communities and erected barriers to their success. Black women in this country continue to labor under negative stereotypes about their intelligence, their ethics, and their abilities. These racist assumptions are so near the surface, they emerged simultaneously with President Biden’s announcement that he would nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court, and now — with Jackson’s confirmation pending — they are aimed squarely at questioning her qualifications and fitness for a role that until recently has been the almost exclusive domain of white men. Unsurprisingly, Justice Sonia Sotomayor faced a similar backlash when President Obama nominated her as the first Woman of Color and first Latino member of the high court in 2009.
If Jackson is confirmed, the presence of a Black woman on the Supreme Court would be a historic and profound milestone not only for Black women and girls, but for people of all races, gender identities, and backgrounds. Against the backdrop of 200-plus years of white men’s perspective, it is crucial for people from marginalized communities to see themselves reflected on the bench and for the Supreme Court to benefit from their presence.
Specifically, a Black woman’s perspective would add a dimension the Supreme Court has never had. People bring their life experiences to the bench along with their intelligence and legal acumen. Of course, Black people are not a monolith, and there is not one Black experience, but Jackson’s contributions to the Supreme Court — in the opinions she writes, the questions she raises, and the conversations she has with other justices behind closed doors — will be informed by the racism and sexism she has inherently faced as a Black woman in the U.S.
Jackson may not turn the tide on an increasingly politicized Supreme Court’s decisions on abortion rights, voting rights, and other potential assaults on people’s civil rights and civil liberties, and we cannot predict how she would rule from the bench. In fact, it could take generations to understand the full impact of adding a long-overdue voice to the Supreme Court, just as it took generations of Black women to pave the path to this moment.
Regardless of the unknowns — and recognizing that the ACLU of Washington by policy does not endorse or oppose candidates for elected or appointed office — it is inspiring to watch a Black woman ascend to the Supreme Court in my lifetime. This is a moment to celebrate. Jackson’s appointment should renew our energy to continue the fight for more representation of marginalized communities on the Supreme Court and at all levels of power and influence in our society.
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Michele Storms is the executive director of the ACLU of Washington.
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