President Joe Biden’s historic nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to join the U.S. Supreme Court will have an impact beyond the courtroom, members of the New York law community said Friday.
Law Professor Melissa Murray, faculty director of the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network at New York University School of Law, noted the potential reach of the milestone.
“I think we can all be really excited about not only the representation that she brings and the fact that lots of little Black girls around the country will see her and know that they too can do this, but that she will be having a material impact on the lives of young lawyers when she works with them as their supervisor and their boss,” Murray said.
Alexis Hoag, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, wrote in an email that she was “ecstatic for Judge Jackson and this country!”
Hoag said she is one of over 200 Black women law professors who will be submitting a letter of “enthusiastic and unequivocal support” for Jackson’s nomination.
Jackson, 51, who grew up in Florida. Her mother is an educator and her father is a lawyer who currently serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Earlier, she spent time as an assistant federal public defender, which would make her the first public defender to join the high court.
She graduated from Harvard Law School and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, whom she would replace if confirmed. He will retire at the end of the 2021-22 term.
History could then follow.
Although white men make up only 30% of the population, they comprise over 70% of the federal judiciary. The legal profession is one of the least diverse in the nation, but lawyers of color, particularly Black women, are underrepresented on the federal bench
“Not since 1991, when Justice Thurgood Marshall retired, have we had a jurist on the high court with experience advocating for and protecting the rights of indigent people facing criminal charges,” Hoag said.
“Throughout history, the laws of this nation have been predominantly created, enacted, interpreted, and enforced by white men,” she wrote. “Although white men make up only 30% of the population, they comprise over 70% of the federal judiciary. The legal profession is one of the least diverse in the nation, but lawyers of color, particularly Black women, are underrepresented on the federal bench.”
Black women hold down about 6% of the seats on the federal bench, Hamilton College professor Gbemende Johnson wrote Tuesday in the Washington Post. They occupy about 5% of the chairs in the nation’s law schools, according to Johnson’s research.
While introducing the judge at the White House on Friday, Biden took note of the disparity, remarking, “it’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation.”
He added, “For too long our government and our courts haven’t looked like America.”
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said of Jackson, “I have witnessed firsthand her exceptional abilities as both a lawyer and a judge, her commitment to the rule of law and equal justice under law, and her generosity of spirit.”
Jackson’s Senate confirmation is not certain, with the chamber split among 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats and two Independents who regularly caucus with Democrats.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham was one of three Republicans who confirmed Jackson to the D.C. court last year, but on Friday voiced opposition on Twitter, arguing that her nomination to the Supreme Court “means the radical Left has won President Biden over yet again.”
Murray, of NYU School of Law, said she encountered Jackson at Berkeley in 2014 and praised her abilities as both a legal expert and a highly visible working mother.
“I think I had a 3-year-old at the time who was just taxing me,” Murray said. “I think I looked bedraggled at that point, and she just smiled and said, 'this will get better, this too will pass.' And she said it with a kind of humor of someone who's been there and knows.”
Jackson has two daughters with Patrick Jackson, a surgeon.
“The fact you have a Black woman who’s a working mother, I think will speak to many people around the country, not just Black women, but everyone who is juggling the school drop-off with work and everything else, she’s been there, she’s done it and it’s great to see someone like that on the court,” Murray said.
A number of her law students had clerked for Jackson over the years, Murray said, “and they come from all walks of life, all backgrounds.”
She expected that Jackson would continue to hire from a diverse pool, if confirmed.
“The cadre of clerks at the Supreme Court has been relatively homogenous and this has only been exacerbated as more judges from Republican presidents have joined the court,” Murray said.