By Marian Wright Edelman
At the White House event where President Biden introduced her as the nominee for the United States Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who began confirmation hearings this week, gave a moving speech describing her journey from her early childhood as the daughter of public school teachers to her nomination to the highest court in the nation. She ended by sharing a coincidence she said “meant a great deal to me over the years”:
“As it happens, I share a birthday with the first Black woman ever to be appointed as a federal judge: the Honorable Constance Baker Motley. We were born exactly 49 years to the day apart. Today, I proudly stand on Judge Motley’s shoulders, sharing not only her birthday but also her steadfast and courageous commitment to equal justice under law. Judge Motley’s life and career has been a true inspiration to me as I have pursued this professional path. And if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed as the next Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded will inspire future generations of Americans.”
It was a lovely tribute to the brilliant and trailblazing Judge Motley and the principles that have served as a guiding light for both of them. It was also a clear reminder that as the first Black woman to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is breaking a new barrier and adding to the long, painfully slow, but unstoppable legacy of African American women securing justice in the courtroom for ourselves and others.
Paving The Way
This is a legacy that stretches back to women like Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved Massachusetts midwife and nurse who successfully sued for her own freedom in 1781 after she heard Massachusetts’s newly ratified state constitution read aloud, and realized its declared rights to freedom and equality for all should apply to her too. In the decades that followed other Black women occasionally received justice in the courts as plaintiffs, including Sojourner Truth, who in 1828 sued to have her five-year-old son returned to her after he was illegally sold and taken from New York to Alabama. In 1872 Charlotte Ray graduated from Howard University School of Law, and she became the first Black woman lawyer in the U.S., the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, and the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.
Ray eventually had to give up her law practice because she could not secure enough clients. But as the first African American woman lawyer she laid a path that was followed by others like Jane Bolin, the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, who became the first Black woman to serve as a judge in the U.S. with her appointment to the New York City Domestic Relations Court (later Family Court) in 1939.
Judge Bolin, in turn, paved the way for Judge Motley to become the first Black woman federal judge in the U.S. in 1966, and then Judge Motley became the role model for future Black female federal judges like Ketanji Brown Jackson. Now Judge Jackson deserves to be swiftly confirmed as U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Jackson, where she is poised to serve as a role model for the next generation.
In a nation that has never made it easy for Black women to break any barriers, it is little surprise that some of the same racism and sexism Judge Jackson’s predecessors all faced is still very present today. She was a national speech and debate star and student body president in high school, but was still told by a school counselor that applying to Harvard would be setting her sights “too high.”
She applied anyway, and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College. She then received her law degree cum laude from Harvard Law School, where she was an editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, and has served as a Supreme Court law clerk, a federal public defender, in private practice, as a trial court judge, as vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and is currently serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, considered the second most powerful court in the nation.
‘Brilliant Legal Mind’
Despite all this she is still facing predictable complaints from some of the same familiar quarters that she is somehow “not qualified.” But President Biden knew better; the Senators from both parties who have already voted to confirm her for three previous positions know better; and above all, Judge Jackson knows better. She is very well aware of who she is and on whose shoulders she stands.
In his White House introduction, President Biden explained that when he began searching for a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer he promised “the process would be rigorous, that I would select a nominee worthy of Justice Breyer’s legacy of excellence and decency — someone extremely qualified, with a brilliant legal mind, with the utmost character and integrity, which are equally as important . . . who will bring to the Supreme Court an independent mind, uncompromising integrity, and with a strong moral compass and the courage to stand up for what she thinks is right.
For too long, our government, our courts haven’t looked like America. And I believe it’s time that we have a Court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation with a nominee of extraordinary qualifications and that we inspire all young people to believe that they can one day serve their country at the highest level.” I agree! Our nation has never yet lived up to its professed creed of justice for all, but Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is prepared to be the next Justice for all that we need right now.
Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional life.