When the first person of color on the nation’s highest court retired three decades ago, the nation’s first female justice paid tribute to the invaluable experience he brought to what had been an exclusively white male institution.
“Although all of us come to the court with our own personal histories and experiences, Justice [Thurgood] Marshall brought a special perspective,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in 1992 in the Stanford Law Review.
“At oral arguments and conference meetings, in opinions and dissents, Justice Marshall imparted not only his legal acumen but also his life experiences, constantly pushing and prodding us to respond not only to the persuasiveness of legal argument but also to the power of moral truth.”
Angela Onwuachi-Willig, the dean of Boston University’s law school, lifts up O’Connor’s insight in a recent letter in support of another legal pioneer: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, recently nominated to succeed retiring Justice Stephen Breyer.
If confirmed, Jackson is not expected to dramatically change the ideological composition of the court, which is now dominated by six conservatives. But she would make an immediate and monumental mark as the court’s first Black female justice and its first former public defender.
Jackson’s lived experience and eminent qualifications will strengthen the court and enrich its rulings, Onwuachi-Willig writes on behalf of more than 200 Black women law deans and professors who signed the letter.
“Black women are vital contributors to our nation’s democracy and must not be excluded from critical institutions within our constitutional democracy,” the lawyers write. Jackson is “one of the brightest legal minds in the country with a well-rounded set of experiences in the legal system and judiciary.”
They are “ecstatic” about her historic nomination and urge her swift confirmation.
Born in Washington, D.C., Jackson was raised in Florida by parents who attended segregated schools and historically black colleges and universities before becoming public school teachers. Jackson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College and went on to Harvard Law School, where she was an editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduated with honors.
After law school, she clerked for Breyer and then, as a public defender, represented people who couldn’t afford to hire a private lawyer. She is now a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit with nearly a decade of experience as a federal judge. The Senate Judiciary Committee is slated to consider her nomination this month.