Why it’s time for Black women state supreme court justices
President Biden’s nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, who stands to become the first Black woman to the United States Supreme Court, is a revelation of the breadth and depth of the talent of Black American women lawyers and jurists. This new focus is most welcome to those of us who have long championed the oversight of Black women judges on the highest courts in all jurisdictions.
While I’m heartened by the high-profile nature of Jackson’s nomination, other blind spots still exist as state supreme courts have skirted the same kind of national scrutiny. Sadly, more than half the states in the United States, including my own home state of Connecticut, have never had a Black woman on their highest court. This, despite the fact that Black women have been members of the bar since Charlotte E. Ray’s admission in 1872 in the District of Columbia. This, despite the fact that the first Black woman judge in the United States was appointed in 1939 in New York. This, despite the fact that Black women have been proving themselves as able appellate court jurists since 1975, when Julia Cooper Mack was appointed to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals by President Gerald Ford, and 1979, when President Jimmy Carter appointed Judge Amalya Kearse to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
There are objectively beneficial reasons to support Black women on a state court of last resort, like a supreme court. Of course, diversity is always a good thing. We know that diverse groups often reach better, well-thought out and considered outcomes. For instance, diverse juries spend more time evaluating the evidence, debating the issues and considering multiple perspectives. Also, diverse representation in courts helps instill public trust in the judicial system. When citizens see themselves reflected, they are more likely to trust the process and the outcomes.
Who is in the room when serious decisions are made, matters. The unique voices and perspectives Black women bring is uniquely distinct from those of white women or men; and from those of Black men. Black women are not all the same, though. Therefore, each is unique and distinct and brings her singular life experience to the world. What they share is a lived experience of Black womanhood in the U.S. That life experience is extremely valuable, in fact, it is necessary, in my view, on state supreme courts.
Though there is no central database curating this information, from my research I have observed that the progress of Black women in state judiciary branches varies. It appears that 27 states have never had a Black woman on the court of last resort, 21 of which have never had any Black woman on any intermediary state appellate court either. Also, of the states in which Black women have been able to break through the glass ceiling to reach their state’s highest court, about one-third (eight of 21) have only marked that achievement in the last ten years. And, sadly, when Black women have left these courts, they are rarely replaced or succeeded by other Black women, making them often the first and only one in their state.
State supreme courts decide critical issues that affect the lives and livelihood of their state residents. They determine issues of state constitutional merit, and have the final say on the interpretation of state laws. Where state law is concerned, the buck stops with these state courts of last resort.
2022 is the perfect time for all states which have not done so to reexamine the elevation of a Black woman to their supreme or appellate courts. Such an elevation will improve the quality and esteem of their court as we become an increasingly diverse nation.
Fortunately, virtually every state that has not had a Black woman on its court of last resort currently has esteemed Black women scholars, jurists and lawyers. Many have Black women on their intermediary, appellate court, but the list of potential justices includes legal scholars like the following law school deans. Dean Patricia Bennett (Mississippi College School of Law); Dean Camille Davidson (Southern Illinois Law School); Dean Linda Greene (Michigan State Law School); Dean Lolitta Buckner Innis (University of Colorado Law School); Assoc. Dean Shirley Jefferson (Vermont Law School); Dean Camille Nelson (Hawaii Law School).
Our states have too much diverse talent to remain satisfied with the mediocrity of courts that do not reflect this diversity. This commentary is not criticism of the current or past justices and judges on courts of last resort. Rather, it is an invitation to consider the value that is being overlooked: Black women lawyers and judges.
2022 has already proven to be a historic and momentous year for Black women lawyers and judges. It’s time to take that momentum from the national discussions and propel Black women judges to our state judiciaries as well.
Retired Connecticut Superior Court Judge Angela Robinson is counsel with Halloran and Sage and the Waring and Carmen Partridge Faculty Fellow and visiting professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law. She is the author of “First Black Women Judges: The Story of Three Black Women Judges in the United States.”
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