The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before Ketanji Brown Jackson, Barbara Jordan was almost the first Black woman on the Supreme Court

Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) addresses the opening session of the National Women's Conference in Houston in November 1977. (AP)
6 min

It was a hot spring afternoon in Austin, and Jane Hickie was overdressed. She had just come from the governor’s mansion to the home of Barbara Jordan, the legendary former congresswoman who was now an ethics professor at the University of Texas. They sat on Jordan’s uncovered back deck in the Texas sunshine.

A few hours earlier, President Bill Clinton had called Hickie’s friend and boss, Texas Gov. Ann Richards, while Hickie sat nearby. Clinton asked her something, and Richards, a close friend of Jordan’s, told him she would send Hickie to find out and let him know, Hickie remembered last week in a call with The Washington Post.

Now she was sitting in front of Jordan, who was casually dressed in “slacks and Oxford shirt,” to deliver Clinton’s proposition.

“President Clinton would like you to consider being nominated for the Supreme Court,” Hickie told her.

Jordan, famous for a baritone voice with which she had given pivotal speeches, looked at her and laughed — a big “melodious” laugh. Then, Hickie recalled, Jordan joked, “Oh, think who I’d have to sit next to!”

Jordan was relaxed and cordial, Hickie said. And Jordan was firm, concluding, “No. I like my life.”

President Biden will nominate federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, according to people briefed on the process, The Washington Post reported Friday. If confirmed, she will be the highest court’s first Black woman justice. Many Americans excitedly await her entry while believing that it’s long overdue.

So overdue, in fact, that if fate had twisted just a little bit differently, we might have had one of the country’s most accomplished and respected Black women on the bench in 1993.

Jordan was born in 1936 and raised in Houston’s impoverished Fifth Ward by a family with a lot of religious faith and not much else. She graduated from high school at 16 and attended Texas Southern University, a historically Black institution, where she became a debate champion, beating students at Yale and Brown universities. She went on to Boston University for law school, where a young Martin Luther King Jr. had just earned his doctorate.

Jordan returned to Texas and, in 1967, became the first Black woman elected to the Texas state Senate. Around this time, she also met Nancy Earl, a psychologist, on a camping trip; the two were partners for the rest of her life, although Jordan kept this relationship and much of her personal life strictly out of public view.

In 1972, in the same election in which President Richard Nixon won a second term, Jordan was elected to a seat in the House of Representatives, making her the first Black woman in the Texas delegation and one of only three Black women in Congress at the time.

Richard Nixon considered naming the first woman to the Supreme Court. He was thwarted.

Soon, Jordan was thrust into the national spotlight when the House Judiciary Committee, to which she had been assigned, began hearings on Nixon’s growing Watergate scandal. The hearings were must-see TV, and Jordan’s opening statement happened to air live on prime time.

Speaking of the Constitution, she said, “When that document was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that ‘We, the people.’ ” And yet, she said, “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total.” She said she would not be an “idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

Overnight, she was a national figure, acting almost as the nation’s conscience. Only 37, she was mentioned on shortlists for ambassadorships and as a possible vice president to Jimmy Carter. In 1976, she gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, later named by scholars one of the top five speeches of the 20th century.

Jordan’s star was still rising when she abruptly left Congress in 1979. Privately, she had begun to suffer the effects of multiple sclerosis. Soon, she was in a wheelchair. She and Earl moved to Austin, and Jordan took a job teaching ethics at UT.

It was in Austin that she met a county commissioner named Ann Richards. The two became close friends, and Jordan chaired Richards’s successful campaign for governor in 1990.

It is unclear how serious Clinton was about the proposal to name Jordan to the Supreme Court. (Representatives for Clinton did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.) Clinton’s selection process was infamously chaotic and included a long list of unconventional candidates, such as Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and his wife, Hillary Clinton.

In a 2006 radio documentary about Jordan, Clinton told the Austin station KUT, “When my first Supreme Court vacancy came up, I very much wanted to appoint a woman jurist. And Barbara Jordan would clearly have been my first choice. But I knew that the condition of her health was uncertain, so I had to look elsewhere.”

Biden promised a Black female justice. Reagan made a similar pledge.

As for Jordan’s response — “Think who I’d have to sit next to!” — it’s hard to know exactly what to make of it. She could have been referring to any or several or all of the other justices, though the seating of Clarence Thomas two years earlier amid sexual harassment allegations was fresh in the public memory. According to the Supreme Court’s zigzagging, seniority-based seating chart, her immediate neighbor on the bench would have been David Souter.

In the biography “Barbara Jordan: American Hero,” author Mary Beth Rogers spoke with Earl, Jordan’s partner, who suggested that Clinton didn’t take Jordan’s “no” to Hickie as a final answer.

“They had some calls back and forth,” Earl said of Jordan and the president. “The indication from Clinton was that he might be interested if she was, although no formal offer was ever made. Barbara thought about it, but she didn’t have to think about it long.”

Eventually, a grass-roots campaign to nominate D.C. Circuit judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg gained traction, and Clinton assented. Richards and Hickie were in the Rose Garden on June 14, 1993, when Clinton announced Ginsburg as his pick, Hickie said.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to leave America to see how unfairly it treated women

Jordan’s health soon worsened. She battled leukemia and died of viral pneumonia in 1996 at 59. Both Clinton and Richards spoke at her funeral.

And before she died, Clinton made Jordan another offer, and this time she accepted. In 1994, he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.