By Ben Jealous
President Joe Biden’s first year in office has brought both triumphs and disappointments. There’s no question that the administration has work to do on voting rights and on passing the critical social infrastructure pieces of the Build Back Better plan.
But firmly in the “wins” column is the president’s extraordinary success nominating and confirming to the federal bench extraordinarily qualified judges with a demonstrated commitment to civil rights, especially Black women judges. This is profoundly important to our legal system, to how justice is administered and to how everyday people experience life in our democracy, whether they ever find themselves in court or not.
That’s because even though the Supreme Court grabs headlines when it decides a big case, the high court takes only a few cases every year. The vast majority of federal cases is decided in the lower courts, at the circuit and district levels. This is where rulings are made that affect our right to vote, to not be discriminated against in housing or on the, to access health care, and so much more.
Having a strong contingent of Black women judges on these courts means the lived experience they bring — in addition to their stellar legal credentials — is coming into play in deciding cases that will shape all our lives for years to come.
The numbers tell a powerful story. A full 65 percent of President Biden’s circuit court nominees have been people of color. Three quarters have been women, and 42 percent have been Black women. These statistics break all previous for inclusion on the critically important circuit courts, whose opinions establish the law in all the states in their region.
The president has shown a similar commitment to diversity on the district courts, as well. And all this comes against a backdrop of record-shattering appointments overall: Biden has had more lower federal court judges (circuit and district combined) confirmed than any other president in his first year, in 60 years.
Probe beneath the numbers and you discover even more compelling stories: the personal histories of the Black women tapped by Biden to serve on our highest courts.
A distinguished Yale Law School graduate, Candace Jackson-Akiwumi had her pick of high-powered legal jobs. She worked for a while at a prestigious law firm, then quit to become a public defender, representing people who could not afford a lawyer. In that role, she helped expose the government’s use of “phony stash houses,” a way to trap people into committing crimes they would not otherwise commit. Today she serves as the only Black judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
Similarly, Yale alumna Eunice Lee spent 20 years at Manhattan’s Office of the Appellate Defender, representing poor people in New York City convicted of felonies. Today she is a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.
And Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Harvard Law graduate, devoted years of her career to public service, representing low-income people in Washington, D.C., as a public defender. She also served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, where she worked to end the unjust discrepancy between sentences for crack and powder cocaine. Today she serves on the D.C. Circuit and is often talked about as a future Supreme Court nominee.
The paths to confirmation for these women and their fellow nominees were tainted by attacks, racist and otherwise. The right-wing press criticized these nominees as “radical liberals.” The Senate Judiciary Committee asked Jackson and Jackson-Akiwumi point-blank at their confirmation hearings if race would play a role in their judicial decision-making. And far-right conservatives did everything they could to delay their confirmation. But all of them prevailed, with dignity, grit and grace, the qualities that so many accomplished Black women have shown in the face of adversity.
And the story is still being written. On the campaign trail, President Biden promised to name the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, and Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement paves the way for that to occur. Soon, we may see that woman take a long-overdue and rightful seat on the nation’s highest court; I look forward to celebrating that beautiful and momentous day.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of Practice in the Africana Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches leadership.Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.