By Nyah Marshall
Howard University News Service
It was a historical moment for the nation and a monumental one for many Black Americans, as President Joe Biden publicly introduced Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson last Friday as his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Legal experts recognized this moment, its significance and the emotions it evoked during a panel hosted by the Howard University School of Law on Tuesday.
“It means a lot for the history of Black women in this country,” Howard law professor Tiffany Wright said. “We have been so deeply affected, in many times, in many cases disproportionately, by the decisions of the Supreme Court but have never had a voice in that process.”
Wright joined other Howard law professors, Tuneen Chisolm and Lisa Crooms-Robinson, on this virtual panel of Black women moderated by Dean Danielle Holley-Walker.
“What really stands out for me is the hope,” Chisolm began. “This is real hope for an extended effect, more so even than the election of President Obama, because the president has four years and then maybe another four.”
An audience of over 140 people listened as panelists spoke on Jackson’s nomination and touched on topics like her background, the confirmation process, the potential change she can make within the court and redefining the typical background of a Supreme Court justice. The Senate Judiciary Committee announced that confirmation hearings will start on March 21.
Since Jackson’s nomination, more and more information has been coming forth about her background, personal life and judicial history. During Jackson’s initial introduction at the White House, President Biden spoke of her extraordinary qualifications, while Jackson thanked and spoke of her family — including aspects that aren’t as flawless.
“You may have read that I have one uncle who got caught up in the drug trade and received a life sentence. That is true,” Jackson said.
“But law enforcement also runs in my family. In addition to my brother, I had two uncles who served decades as police officers, one of whom became the police chief in my hometown of Miami, Florida.”
Crooms-Robinson appreciated “the way that she told that story” with transparency and candor. “It wasn’t about stigma or shame for anybody,” she said. “It was just the fact.”
“In a particular kind of way, it was really touching,” Crooms-Robinson continued. “No matter who our relatives are, by and large, we love them, regardless of what it is that they do or where they might find themselves.”
Chisolm adds that Jackson is the daughter of an attorney and an educator, demonstrating that she’s a “women equipped to reason and reason with the best of them.”
Jackson is also a “double Ivy,” having graduated from Harvard University and Harvard law school. “So that tells me that she’s got grit and tenacity and that she has learned how to develop relationships with people who are not like her, because she was in a minority situation there for seven years,” Chisolm said.
Career-wise, Wright explained, it’s evident that Jackson is committed to public interest, as she has spent much of her time as a federal public defender. “She has the empathy for people who are navigating that system, which is often deeply unjust and unfair to people who look like us.”
In terms of the real change that Jackson can make on the Supreme Court and how fast that change can occur, the panelists had a range of opinions. However, it is certain that Jackson’s background as a Black woman and mother will provide a new perspective and challenge or add to those of other justices who may share similar experiences.
As Wright contends, Jackson has the perspective to counterweight Justice Clarence Thomas on matters about race, and she would also be the only other mother on the court to counterweight Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Although Jackson is well equipped, she may not be walking into an easy situation, said Wright, who previously clerked for Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“I’ve seen how difficult it has been for Justice Sotomayor, for example, to be in the minority and to feel like on so many issues that you deeply care about, you just don’t have the votes,” Wright explained.
“There is very little that a minority of three can do.”
On the other hand, Chisolm says Jackson may be able to see her own impact on the court. However, Crooms-Robinson thinks she may plant seeds “that she may not, in fact, ever see sprout.”
“But they are seeds that could, in fact, be sown later on in a way that is similar to what happened just after Reconstruction,” Crooms-Robinson noted.
Jackson is already redefining what a typical justice looks like as a Black woman and former public defender. Though the Constitution does not specify qualifications for justices such as age, education or profession, certain aspects can make one an extremely qualified candidate. At the same time, Jackson checks all the traditional boxes with her Ivy League background and history as a clerk for former Justice Breyer.
The panelists proposed different ways the traditional qualifications can be redefined in hopes of having a future of diverse justices. One is to reframe who the justices select as clerks.
Being chosen to clerk at the Supreme Court is considered the most prestigious job a law graduate can land — only 36 clerkships are offered each year. Clerkships remain highly dominated by white men. The National Law Journal published a study of clerks from 2005 to 2017; 85% of all clerks were white, only 20 of the 487 hired were Black and nine were Hispanic.
While the late Justice Thurgood Marshall was an alumnus of Howard’s law school, almost all justices are Ivy League graduates, specifically graduates of Harvard and Yale. This sets a precedent that this is the education required to clerk for or become a justice.
“Building the clerkship pipeline is important,” Chisolm said. “As we place HBCU students, grads out in the world doing different things, claiming their pedigree, right, we make it more apparent to people that you don’t have to come from a Harvard or Yale to achieve.”
Echoing what many audience members mentioned in the chat, Holley-Walker pointed out that Howard has the ability to “help hold the justices accountable, because we have a substantial pipeline of Howard University School of Law graduates who are going on to appellate clerkships.”
The dean noted that Judge Robert L. Wilkins, who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has made offers to two Howard law graduates.
“We have the same power when it comes to other judges and including Justice Jackson,” she added. “We will be looking forward to her hiring one or more Howard law clerks — hopefully one every year — and we will be waiting, watching in anticipation with all of the outstanding Howard law students and graduates that we have and we know are supremely qualified to clerk on the Supreme Court.”
Nyah Marshall is a reporter and regional bureau chief for HUNewsService.com. She has been covering Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination as an associate justice for the U.S. Supreme Court.