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UI professor says Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination is a ‘profound achievement for African American women in the legal profession’

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson  (J. Scott Applewhite)
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson (J. Scott Applewhite)

On Feb. 25, federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson made history, becoming the first Black woman to be nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court.

President Joe Biden nominated Jackson in anticipation of current Justice Stephen Bryer’s retirement.

“During this process, I looked for someone, who like Justice Breyer, has a pragmatic understanding that the law must work for the American people, someone who has a historical perspective that the Constitution is a resilient charter of liberty,” Biden said in introducing Jackson.

As Biden looks to modify the U.S. Supreme Court into reflecting the diversity within America, Jackson’s nomination is a professional and personal win for Black women and lawyers, like Shaakirrah R. Sanders, a law professor at the University of Idaho College of Law.

“In terms of what this means, it is a profound achievement for African American women in the legal profession, but African American women around the country who come out and vote as they always do to vote for their candidate for president,” Sanders said, who is currently teaching for the spring at Brookland Law School in New York City . “So what this nomination means is that it’s just a very small step toward recognizing what African American woman have contributed to American society and American law in general.”

Jackson was born in Miami, but raised in Washington, D.C., by two public school teachers with her younger brother, Kentaj.

She then went on to attend Harvard University twice, earning a law degree and graduating with honors after serving as editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Since graduating from the top law school in the nation in 1996, Jackson became an attorney and jurist. She clerked for the federal court of appeal and for Breyer, who referred her to Biden.

Jackson also practiced at private law firms around the country and was a public defender before serving on the United States Sentencing Commission as vice chair. Currently, she is a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The journey to the historic nomination begins with the quest to lead the country from the nation’s capital. Throughout Biden’s election campaign, he made the promise to nominate a Black woman into the highest court of the land.

About 90% of Black women voted for Biden in the 2020 presidential election, a consistent trend that reflects Black women as the Democratic party’s most loyal pocket of voters.

“I wasn’t on President Biden’s campaign text chains, but I can only imagine the reason he made the pledge was in honor of the outstanding achievements of African American women and the attorneys in this country, achievements that largely have gone overlooked in history and continue to be overlooked today,” Sanders said. “President Biden, when he was a candidate, made a pledge that if he had the opportunity, he would nominate an African American woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is one of the benefits of your candidates winning.”

While praise for Jackson’s nomination pours in, so does criticism, especially claims that suggest she is unqualified. Her portfolio clearly states her credentials, moving critics of the complaints to call the attacks racist.

Sanders called targeting toward Jackson a “common, racial attack” in the law world .

“When we think about criminal law in this country, much of it is very racial,” Sanders said. “So many of the attacks on her will be trying to disguise racism and many of those attacks won’t do a good job of disguising their racism.

“So I think, on the positive end, we’ll have this incredible achievement, incredible opportunity to celebrate this historic moment, and on the negative end, we will have the opportunity to see the racism and misogyny that continues to exist in our legal culture, but in American culture in general.”

Many are also questioning Jackson’s ability to introduce legal opinions that center on the Black American experience. At 51 years old, Jackson may not deliver votes for cases centered on race that reflect the Black community’s majority or its younger generations regarding thoughts on how to move the country forward in talks of equality.

“We will see many attacks disguised as a concern that she’s too far on the left,” Sanders said. “Much of that will be about her race and her gender. We will see attacks on her record as a public defender. But, of course, that’s part of the history of the U.S., that presumption that some individuals are qualified regardless of their background and their presumption of some individuals are unqualified despite their background.”

For Sanders, the nomination deserves all the positive attention it’s received. Jackson has her law degrees, experience and the clear ability to serve at the capacity of a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Sanders praised Jackson’s work and her nomination as an “incredible achievement and opportunity,” something that should be celebrated especially during Women’s History Month.

“We’re now coming into the first African American woman being nominated to the U.S. Supreme court, despite the overwhelming positive achievements that Black women have made in the legal professions since the 1800s since we saw the Black women getting the first law degrees,” Sanders said. “I think about Lutie Lytle.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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