Last week, a group of 14 Black women lawmakers penned a letter to President Joe Biden, urging him to pick a Black woman “whose work has shown dedication to affirming the rights of our country’s most marginalized communities” for the U.S. Supreme Court. “The nomination of a Black woman is not mere symbolism,” they wrote. “It is an essential step for our country’s promise of justice for all.”
The signees, who include Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, California Rep. Barbara Lee, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, affirmed the importance of diversifying a 233-year-old institution where all but seven members have been white men. But their focus is on another form of long-needed representation: professional diversity on a Court dominated by former prosecutors and corporate attorneys. “The appointment of a Black woman justice with an established record of working to advance racial justice and eradicating entrenched white supremacy is of the utmost importance in reviving the Supreme Court’s credibility,” they wrote.
The letter’s signees cited the absence of Black women from the formal confirmation process—there are no currently-serving Black women senators—as prompting their writing. (As vice president, Kamala Harris serves as the President of the Senate and has the power to cast a tie-breaking vote, including for Supreme Court nominations, if need be.) The letter does not name any specific nominees whom the authors would support. In a separate interview with Grid’s Chris Geidner, Pressley suggested that outgoing NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill and federal appeals court judge Ketanji Brown Jackson would be “extraordinary,” and praised the “exemplary leadership” of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Kimberly Budd.
“The nomination of a Black woman is not mere symbolism; it is an essential step for our country’s promise of justice for all.”
The lawmakers also connected the Court’s homogeneity to the public erosion of trust in its rulings, especially on subjects like abortion, voting and labor rights, which have reflected the “limitations of those appointed to the bench” while disproportionately affecting Black Americans. As Madiba Dennie pointed out for Balls & Strikes last week, nearly twice as many white men named John have served as justices than white women and people of color.
The letter underscores how badly the representation of Black women is needed on the highest court of a professional sphere that has long excluded them. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson nominated Constance Baker-Motley, the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge, to a district court in Manhattan. Invoking the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice and the last one with substantive criminal defense experience, the lawmakers noted that confirming a Black woman with a track record of advancing constitutional rights “is crucial in confronting this country’s racial, civil rights, and democratic crises.”
This argument plainly lays out the context that conservative critics of Biden’s pledge blithely ignored: Legal outcomes are inexorably tied up in the lived experiences of the people making these decisions, and as courts become more representative of the general public, a wider array of perspectives will inform its most important rulings. In other words, diversifying the Court is not about aesthetics—it’s about the values of the people who sit on it.