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A promise fulfilled: Black women react to Ketanji Brown Jackson’s historic Supreme Court confirmation

Black women from every sector of the law — from students to scholars — weigh in on what this groundbreaking moment means

On Thursday, President Joe Biden fulfilled his campaign promise to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court when Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed by the Senate to be an associate justice on the highest court in the land. Jackson is a former clerk for Justice Stephen Breyer, a former federal public defender, and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and most importantly, the Harvard grad is the first Black woman to be confirmed to the Supreme Court in its 233-year history.

To examine this moment and the possible futures that could follow, Andscape spoke to Black women across every section of the law — from students and professors to corporate attorneys and scholars — to get their take on what this historic confirmation meant to them personally, and to the legal profession more broadly.

“It’s refreshing, despite all she had to endure to get here,” said Teeanna Brisco, a Juris Doctor candidate at the Howard University School of Law. “It has made me think about what all is to come in my lifetime. I’m only 24 and I just can’t imagine what all I may witness in my lifetime — hopefully even a Black woman president.”

Brisco hopes Jackson’s confirmation is just the beginning of Biden’s commitment to making the federal bench more diverse. “I hope that President Biden doesn’t feel like he’s checked this box or ‘delivered on this promise’ and therefore doesn’t have to continue to diversify the field and nominate other Black women in the lower federal courts. I hope that state leaders see this and do the same.”

Deborah Archer, the first Black president of the American Civil Liberties Union and a professor of clinical law at NYU School of Law, put the historic moment into perspective. “This shatters the ultimate glass ceiling in the legal profession and it is an incredibly meaningful moment in our history. Shortly after Emancipation, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court said that Black people had no rights which white people were bound to respect. And now a Black woman will sit on that court!”

Oni Holley Brown, the vice president-deputy general counsel/chief litigation officer for Aveanna Healthcare in Atlanta, called the moment “thrilling.” “Judge Jackson’s confirmation is thrilling for me as a Black woman in the legal profession and I feel a deep sense of pride in her accomplishment. Her appointment to the highest court in the land is truly the culmination of our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson (left) with Vice President Kamala Harris (right) at the event celebrating her confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court on April 8.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Charlita Mays, the vice president and senior legal counsel for Fidelity Investments, said she’s heartened by Jackson’s achievement. “My heart is full. That her qualifications are unassailable, but her confirmation was in no way assured only underscores the importance of this appointment. She persisted and the whole country will be the beneficiaries. This is yet another step toward this country accepting the value of Black women. I am overjoyed for soon-to-be Justice Jackson and pray for her continued success.”

Yvonne A. Miller, an associate at Charlson Bredehoft Cohen Brown & Nadelhaft P.C. in Reston, Virginia, agreed with Biden that this appointment is past due. “The historical nomination and confirmation of the Honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court signals to me that the legal and judicial contributions that Black women have been making to this country are finally being seen and recognized generations later. Black women have been studying and practicing law in this country since Charlotte Ray in 1872!”

Miller also highlighted the meaning of Jackson’s confirmation to Black women across the U.S. “As of today, all 20 million-plus Black women can actually say that they have representation on the highest court in the land. I hate that it took us this long to get here, but I am extremely grateful and proud to be witnessing it. While KBJ’s presence on the court may not change its ideology, it will definitely open the door to many other Black women attorneys who are qualified and ready to lead from the bench!”

Educators at law schools across the country are eager to help mold the next generation of Black women in law. Melynda Price, a law professor at the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law, expressed pride in overcoming past battles. “I, like Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, am among the generation of Black women who are direct beneficiaries of the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement. Growing up, the image of Thurgood Marshall loomed large because of his work as a lawyer and then a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. We entered law school with this image of how the law could be used to advance justice, but it didn’t help us to understand how exactly we fit as Black women in the law.”

Price expressed her excitement for the future of the legal profession and the direction of the Supreme Court. “From this day forward, every young person who enters law school will have an image of a Black woman as what it means to embody the highest legal authority in this nation. However, it goes beyond image. We know that as various groups have made it to the Supreme Court, the considerations of factors that are important to their communities have also made their way to the court. This happened when judges who were Catholic, Jewish, immigrants, women and other historically excluded groups joined the court. The meaning of justice and law in this country will only be more expansive by having such a qualified Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Despite her pride, Victoria Griffin, a political science student at North Carolina A&T State University and 2022-23 president-elect for the N.C. A&T chapter of the National Black Law Students Association, felt stung by the ugly confirmation hearing, and is skeptical of the positive effects that Jackson’s ascension might portend. “Truthfully, I do not think this means much for the future of diversity in law,” she said.

“Judge Jackson will be the most qualified to sit on the current court, and yet was still hurled insults and demeaning questions throughout her hearing,” she continued. “While having Judge Jackson on this court will no doubt spark hope for other Black women who desire to do similar things, it does not change the reality that it is not simply racism, but misogynoir within the American political system. I would love to say that this confirmation will open more doors, but unfortunately, regardless of political affiliation, our Senate still remains a white majority. Therefore, Blackness in law and politics is still a threat to their livelihood, well-being and comfort. I am optimistic, however, that there will be more Black women to follow in the future.”

Since 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) has advocated for civil and human rights for disenfranchised people. The LDF’s president and director-counsel, Janai Nelson, said of the historic vote: “When you consider the caste that Black women have been forced to occupy in this country since its inception, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s historic nomination to the Supreme Court is nothing short of extraordinary. And, while the shattering of this particular glass ceiling is long-awaited and overdue, this is, most of all, a moment of jubilation. A triumph for justice. A momentous step forward for our democracy.”

Nelson went on to discuss the important role the LDF has played in the emergence of Black legal minds. “As the organization that produced the first Black associate justice and the first Black woman federal judge, this moment is a powerful extension of LDF’s legacy. I hope that the next generation of Black men and women lawyers will see their potential as limitless because of these ever-expanding models of excellence and achievement.”

JK Turner is a writer, artist, and Architect based in Houston, TX. He appreciates bar spitters, ball handlers, and do-it-yourselfers, and he is excited to make your acquaintance.