During her remarks after becoming the latest nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson invoked the African proverb, “if we stand tall, it is because we are standing on the backs of our ancestors.” as she reflected on Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman appointed to the federal bench.
It was unsurprising that Jackson would take a moment during the most consequential speech of her career to shine a light on others. It speaks to her generous and kind character. I was fortunate to be one of her classmates at Harvard Law School. We were in the same section, the same dorm, and both active in the Black Law Students Association. As a friend and classmate, the most concise way to describe her is to compare her to a beloved television character from the television sitcom, A Different World.
While I have been compared to Jasmine Guy’s “Whitley” on more than one occasion, I would compare Judge Jackson to Charnele Brown’s “Kimberly Reese.”
Like the character, Jackson is driven, hardworking, down to earth and loyal. She also embraces her own identity as a Black woman. Her mother and father graduated from Tuskegee University and North Carolina A&T. She was active with the Black Student Union at Harvard and the Black Law Students Association. She is still very close to her former college roommates, three other brilliant Black women.
I remember her as a petite, genuinely kind smart Black girl with a beautiful smile. She is a woman of exceptional character and integrity. As a judge, she has been described as a kind, compassionate, consensus builder. Her reputation in law school and as a jurist gives us a sense for her judicial temperament. Her collegial personality may be one of the reasons she has been confirmed by Congress on three separate occasions.
This nomination is an important time to rejoice, particularly people who believe in equality and justice. Of course, some people, including in the Black community, are proceeding cautiously. After all, the last time a Black judge was appointed to the Supreme Court it was staunch conservative Clarence Thomas.
Although Justice Thomas has brought his own lived experiences to the Court, many of his decisions were ideologically opposite from the first Black man appointed, the beloved civil rights leader Justice Thurgood Marshall. Based on her qualifications, experience, and intellect Judge Jackson deserves the full support of the Black community and the entire country.
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In spite of her exceptional credentials, racist dog whistles have been sounding like those of Fox News host Tucker Carlson demanding that her LSAT scores be released. As a law professor who has served on the admissions committee, LSAT scores are used as a predictor for law school grades particularly when considered with undergraduate GPA.
We already know Jackson’s outstanding credentials including graduating with honors from both Harvard College and Harvard Law School, serving as an editor for the Harvard Law Review and clerking for a Supreme Court Justice. But there is no record of Carlson ever demanding the LSAT scores of now Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the only current Supreme Court Justice who did not graduate from Harvard or Yale Law School. While many have condemned Carlson’s statements as racist, conservatives are probably unaware of the double standard that is constantly placed on talented Black women.
Carlson claimed that her score would “settle the question conclusively” but it is abundantly clear that no credential will ever make any Black woman worthy of breaking a 233-year old glass ceiling in the minds of some.
Jackson’s eight and a half years of serving as a federal trial judge means she has more judicial experience than four of the current justices combined. She has been serving on the D.C. Circuit court since June 2021. During her career on the federal trial court, she authored more than 560 opinions, and was rarely overturned.
Jackson’s identity as a Black woman is not the only reason her nomination is historic, and she would be the only Supreme Court Justice who has served as a federal public defender. The only other Supreme Court justice that has done criminal defense was Justice Marshall.
Criminal defense attorneys do the hard job of defending the constitutional rights of people accused of crime. Jackson also served as Vice-Chair for the U.S. Sentencing Commission. On that commission, she helped address the unfair sentencing disparities in drug cases, among other things.
Jackson also has lived experience that will bring an important perspective to her cases. Her brother served as a police officer. Her uncle was the former chief of police for Miami. In addition to having family members involved in law enforcement, she has a family member who was convicted as a criminal defendant based on a drug case, a fact she acknowledged during her acceptance speech.
Now is not the time to be uninvolved or uninterested but to rejoice and rally. We have waited 233 years for a Black woman to be named to the United States Supreme Court. As the legendary songstress Etta James once sang, “at last.”
Njeri Mathis Rutledge is a legal expert, law professor, speaker, writer and former prosecutor. She serves as an Ambassador with The OpEd Project and a tenured professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. Follow her on Twitter @njerirutledge.