A Supreme Court for all of us

April 21, 2022

By Jacquelyn D. Heath
Special to The Milwaukee Times

Ketanji Brown Jackson

The Supreme Court of the United States of America was established by Article III of the Constitution in 1789 and assembled to hear its first case in 1790. There was nothing in the Constitution then specifying the prescribed race or gender of those individuals qualified to serve as Supreme Court justices. However given the conventions of those times, the initial justices – much like the so-called “founding fathers” – were all of the male Caucasian persuasion.

Slow-forward some 233 years later through 119 individuals appointed to the nation’s highest judicial body, and only five females have sat on the Supreme Court. The first was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was tapped by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and served until she stepped down in 2006.

When Associate Justice Stephen Breyer announced on January 27, 2022 his intention to retire from the Supreme Court at the end of the current judicial season, President Joseph Biden stated that his choice to fill the upcoming vacancy would be a black woman. On April 7, 2022, that promise was fulfilled when District of Columbia Appellate Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson won Senate confirmation in a 53-47 vote to fill the vacancy. For the first time in our nation’s history, we will have the most representative Supreme Court ever.

As of July 2021, U.S. Census records showed there were 331,893,715 people in the United States. Of that number, 41.1 million, or 12.4 percent of the population, identified as black or African American females. It’s more than long overdue that we have someone on the Supreme Court who not only looks like that segment of the populace, but also is intimately knowledgeable of their unique American experience. So this significance definitely is not lost on America’s black female population.

My Granny used to say, “For some people, it takes twice as long to get half as far; and it has nothing to do with their qualifications.” According to Granny, what this disparity speaks to are the very factors that kept a black female from advancing to the Supreme Court for 233 years.

Like many black females who have worked hard and made it to the top of their profession, the road to reward and recognition has been loaded with potholes. Two in particular, namely structural racism and implicit bias, have undermined and discouraged many a brilliant black woman.

Associate Justice-designee Jackson, probably and literally, has forgotten more about the law than many of her colleagues will ever know. Her legal pedigree includes undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard; serving as editor of the Harvard Law Review and a Supreme Court clerkship with Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, whom she in later years would be named to replace. Add to that foundation, experience in private legal practice; serving as a public defender; working as a U.S. Sentencing Commissioner; as well as serving as a judge on both the District of Columbia Circuit Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals.

In the face of all of this achievement, there have been the naysayers. They have included the 47 U.S. Senators, all Republicans, who refused to support her nomination; as well as the high school guidance counselor who deemed young Ketanji’s aspiration to attend Harvard and study law as “setting her sights too high.”

Fortunately for her and now the nation, Judge Jackson countered these attitudes and actions by continuing to work toward her goals and dreams with excellence, resilience, self-confidence and perseverance. It is these qualities that will continue to stand her in good stead as she moves into the next chapter of her life and career, and take her place in history.

The fact is, Associate Justice-designee Ketanji Brown Jackson may be the first black woman to ascend to our nation’s highest court. But with any luck, thanks to her example and inspiration, little black girls with all of the requisite qualifications in the America of the future will make sure that she won’t be the last.