What judicial diversity does and does not mean

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When former President Trump accused federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel of being biased because he is Mexican, it highlighted the false narrative about the meaning of a diverse judiciary. While Trump’s suggestion was offensive, the stench of the sentiment — that minority judges cannot be impartial — lingers. Recently, a variation of the stereotype was penned by an unlikely source: a Black retired federal judge. 

In a letter written to President Biden, retired judge Uriel W. Clemon sought to attack the legal career of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is rumored to be a favorite for nomination to the Supreme Court, because she ruled against a group of Black litigants in a class action case, Ross v. Lockheed Martin Corp

In his letter, Clemon claimed that Jackson made rulings that adversely impacted the Black workers, leaving Clemon on the losing side of the litigation. In the letter, Clemon neglected to mention that the case was one in which he was counsel. Of course, as a sitting judge, Jackson cannot comment on her decision. 

Perhaps it was unintentional, but the underlying assumption that ruling adversely against Black litigants in a single case means she would not be a fair Supreme Court justice is another variation of the same racist stereotype. Clemon claimed “simple justice and equality in the workplace would be sacrificed” by Jackson’s appointment, based on her decision in the case. Ruling against a group of Black litigants does not make her an enemy to the Black community or to justice and equality. Instead, her commitment to impartially following the law, even if it means making tough calls, should be celebrated.  

Jackson’s commitment to remain faithful to the law is one of her greatest strengths, which would make her a true asset to the U.S. Supreme Court. In her written response to questions when she was considered as a nominee to federal district court, Jackson described her judicial philosophy as approaching “all cases with professional integrity, meaning strict adherence to the rule of law, keeping an open mind, and deciding each issue in a transparent, straightforward manner, without bias or any preconceived notion of how the matter is going to turn out.” We should ask for nothing less of every aspiring judge. 

Jackson and the other amazing women reportedly being considered for appointment to the Supreme Court deserve to be judged based on their legal acumen, ethics and temperament.   

Jackson’s commitment to justice and equality is clear, based on her impressive legal record. Jackson clerked for three federal judges, including Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Her legal practice and public service experience is extensive, including criminal and civil cases. Notably, she served in the appellate division of the Federal Public Defender’s Office in the District of Columbia. She also served as a judge for more than seven years, handling a number of complex and high-profile cases.

If appointed, Jackson would be one of the few judges who has experience fighting for people accused of crimes. The last Supreme Court justice with experience in criminal defense was Justice Thurgood Marshall. Jackson also served for several years as a commissioner on the U.S. Sentencing Commission.   

As a classmate at Harvard Law School, Jackson was never arrogant or cutthroat but helpful and down to earth. She always had a brilliant legal mind, a kind heart and a commitment to justice. In short, Jackson’s credentials and reputation are stellar. She is in good company with the other strong potential nominees.   

Diversity in the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, is important — not because it will benefit a particular group of people but because it ultimately benefits all people by providing a more complete understanding of the law and its impact. Justice Stephen Breyer said Jackson “sees things from different points of view, and she sees somebody else’s point of view and understands it.” That ability is the real benefit of having diversity on the bench.   

Before other misguided letters are sent to President Biden regarding any of the qualified Black women reportedly on his short list for nomination to Breyer’s seat when he retires, it’s time to put racist stereotypes to rest about what diversity on a court can and cannot do.  

Njeri Mathis Rutledge is a professor of law at South Texas College of Law Houston. She is a former prosecutor and former municipal court judge. Follow her on Twitter @NjeriRutledge.

Tags Biden Supreme Court nominee Black judges Diversity Donald Trump Federal judges Joe Biden Ketanji Brown Jackson Stephen Breyer Uriel Clemon

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