Black female judges, law students and more on what the Supreme Court nomination means to them

Clockwise from top left: Judge Bernice Bouie Donald, Sephora Grey, Ravan Austin and Desiree Tims. (Washington Post illustration; U.S. Court of Appeals; Sephora; A. Wilke Photography Grey; Chaves Adams Photography,)

In the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden made a pledge that was met with roaring applause during a Democratic debate: “I’m looking forward to making sure there’s a Black woman on the Supreme Court to make sure we in fact get every representation.”

Now, a year into his presidency, Biden is poised to make good on his campaign promise. On Thursday, he announced that he will nominate a Black woman to fill the seat that Justice Stephen G. Breyer will vacate when he retires at the end of the current Supreme Court term. “The person I will nominate will be someone with extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity,” Biden said during a White House ceremony. “And that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court.”

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The news garnered both praise and criticism across social media. Some opponents questioned the qualifications of a potential nominee, causing outrage among supporters who deemed the remarks as racist and sexist. Others said the comments were hypocritical, citing former president Donald Trump’s past lower court appointees who received “not qualified” ratings from the American Bar Association.

Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, whom he said will be announced by the end of February, highlights his year-long effort to diversify the federal bench. So far, he has nominated eight Black women to federal appeals courts. Five have been confirmed, and three more nominations are pending before the Senate.

To understand the impact of Biden’s historical nomination, former and current Black female judges, lawyers, legal clerks, law professors and students shared their reflections on what it means to them for a Black woman to be appointed to the nation’s highest court.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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1

Judge Bernice B. Donald, 70

U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit

“African American women have long been a critical part of the struggle for equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity. We have championed the cause of justice; we have championed diversity, equity and inclusion; and we have fought for the rights of others. There are so many extraordinarily well-qualified African American women poised and ready to serve. I thank President Biden for recognizing that fact.”

2

Jasmine Marchbanks-Owens, 26

Howard Law School student

“To have a Black woman on the bench is to have someone who inherently understands the intersections of sexism and racism. It wasn’t until I enrolled in law school that I truly began to understand the power of the bench and the importance of having representation. As a law student, I see the benefits and importance of having someone who intuitively understands my predicament and so many others’.

In my lifetime, I have had the privilege of witnessing many firsts, all of which my grandparents would say they never thought would see the day. I have witnessed the first Black president and the first Black woman vice president. Although those firsts were very inspiring and influential for me, I believe witnessing the first Black woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court will be the most impactful.”

3

Sheryll Cashin, 60

Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law, Civil Rights and Social Justice at Georgetown Law, former clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall (1990-1991)

On her clerkship experience:

“I was the only Black female law clerk the year I was there. In fact, I was only the second Black female Justice Marshall had ever hired, the first being his goddaughter, Karen Hastie Williams. My race and gender shaped my experience with Justice Marshall profoundly. He paid attention to me, treated me a bit like a granddaughter; and it was wonderful. Other than that, I did not feel affected by gender or race in doing my work. I knew a lot of the clerks from my days working as an editor on the Harvard Law Review and as a clerk on the D.C. Circuit. I had learned to deal with strong-minded men by then and to command respect in my own way.”

On the news regarding Biden’s Supreme Court pick:

“On a personal level, assuming Biden follows through with his promise and does nominate a Black American woman, it will be a source of enormous pride — that Black women’s legacy of excellent contributions to the American experiment is being recognized and will continue. Frankly, it will also give me personally more faith in the legitimacy of the institution, as it becomes more representative of America’s human spectrum. … My guess is that the day Biden nominates a Black woman, there will be many Black girls across the nation who will see themselves for the first time as future lawyers and judges, and that will contribute to diversifying the profession.”

4

Adrienne Jones, 49

Lawyer and assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College

“Yesterday I saw an old article about a letter from [activist and lawyer] Pauli Murray. Apparently, in 1971, she wrote to Nixon and said that he should think about putting her on the court, and, of course, he did not. And if there’s anyone in the world who should have been a Supreme Court justice, it is Pauli Murray. Now it’s 2022. Pauli Murray wasn’t on the court, and neither are any number of smart, important Black women. Traditionally in the United States, I feel like, for people of color, generally Black people, we always encounter folks saying, ‘Well, we couldn’t find any candidates.’

I really hope [Biden], in fact, nominates and is successful at getting through [Democratic Sens.] Sinema and Manchin, in particular. Because if the court system is not going to change — [such as] we’re not going to have term limits and we’re not going to think about ways to adjust the court — then it’s really necessary that it be balanced. We’re here right on the precipice of overturning Bakke [and] Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court is one of those spaces where the negotiations that go on there provide protections for the people at large. So, yeah, I need a sister on the court. And, ideally, I need somebody else to step down. Now.”

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5

Sephora Grey, 24

Georgetown Law student and host of legal podcast “Topping The Curve”

“The significance of having a Black woman on the Supreme Court is clear: It is a step in the right direction to recognizing that Black women are beyond qualified to do everything (and more) that the White man has long been recognized for. But let’s not turn a blind eye to what most will attempt to turn this into: People will say, and have already said, that she is less than, unqualified, unprepared, undignified and unintellectual. What makes it more interesting is that no nominee has been announced.

To categorize the entire population of Black women is not only racist but also reflects the internal thought processes of these people and their overbroad, and demeaning, opinion of Black women. To make such a statement is to assume that Black women do not have individual identities, characteristics or traits that make them unique. It is to assume that all Black women are monoliths. The worst part is that many of these statements are coming from people in positions of power.”

6

Desiree Tims, 34

President and chief executive of Innovation Ohio

“There are many historical Supreme Court decisions that sting. There were days in law school when the real conversation and discussion about a landmark case occurred in the lunchroom or group chat, rather than the classroom. While the law can be objective, its subjectiveness tells a progressive American story. It is the lived experiences and diverse backgrounds of Supreme Court justices that are vital to the deliberative decision-making process.

It’s Black women like Matilda Lawrence who shaped Justice Salmon Chase. It’s Black women like Ruby Bridges whose mere presence required a reinforcement of Brown v. Board of Education. And it’s Black women like Vice President Kamala Harris who continue to set examples about how high Black women can go. It is so important that the diversity of our nation is reflected in our government, which includes the federal judiciary. And while Black women are not a monolith, there are a significant number of Black women who are more than qualified to serve and sit on the highest court in the land.”

7

Philippa Scarlett, 47

Head of global government affairs for RELX, former clerk to Justice Stephen G. Breyer (2007-2008)

On clerking for Justice Breyer:

“One of the legacies of Justice Breyer is, I think, how he really sought to have a diverse community of clerks in an institution where there are so few women and people of color, never mind women of color, who have had that experience as a law clerk at the Supreme Court. … [He was] an amazing boss and mentor, as well. … he would often just come up to us clerks or just come plop down in the chair next to me, and I’m typing away, working, and he’s like, ‘So, Pippa, this is what I’m trying to work out and this is what I’m thinking — tell me why I’m wrong.’ … He was really open and open to differences of opinion, and when you have someone like that ask you a question like that, it’s quite a responsibility.”

On the prospect of a Black woman on the Supreme Court:

“Hearing [Biden’s] announcement, for any Black woman and certainly Black woman lawyer, it’s very exciting. We’re so few, if you look at the numbers. … For me, it’s bittersweet just in that I loved Justice Breyer, I loved working for him. He is important in my life. And it’s an end of an era in a way, but it’s also an exciting new chapter, and I’m happy to call several of the few Black women who are on the federal court my friends. So I’m very excited about this for the country and possibly for them.”

8

Ariel June, 21

Georgetown Law student

“Growing up, I knew I wanted to join the legal profession as an attorney, but I never saw women that looked like me in the field. The more you see people that do not look like you in your dream career, the more you think that you cannot achieve it. Having a Black woman on the Supreme Court would be life-changing for the young Black girls coming behind me — proof that what we believe for ourselves can come true.”

9

Verna Saunders, 50

Justice on New York Supreme Court, 1st Judicial District, and president of the Judicial Friends Association

“When we have entrenched racism and … separation and persecution of people who are Black, I think it is very visceral and necessary to make the word ‘justice’ something that is meaningful for everyone.

Being a [Black] lawyer and now being a [Black] judge, there are very often places where you’re just not expected to be, and there’s no assumption that you play that role. For many people, I would dare say that if they walk into a courtroom in a suit they are presumed to be a professional, an attorney even, but for Black people it is not as true without your robe that you’re assumed to be the judge. We are still facing those very plain barriers to acceptance and true participation. I became a judge in 2008, and I think there has been progress — but it is a shame that in 2008 we still needed that much progress, and in 2022, we’re still talking about ‘the first Black fill in the blank’ — judge, president, etc.”

10

Ravan Austin, 28

Legal advocate in Brooklyn

“I am hopeful this nomination signals to those who seek to erase the experiences and contributions of Black women and girls that our nation is ready for meaningful change. If we are to truly lift all Americans and ensure equity for all, the experiences of Black women must be centered in all rooms where change is the ultimate goal.

This nomination is deeply personal for me, as I begin my legal career in a field that is often unwelcoming to those that look like me. Black girls everywhere must know with visible proof there is no table at which they cannot sit.”

11

Crystal Nix-Hines, 58

Partner at the litigation firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan, former clerk to Justices Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O’Connor (1991-1992)

“Clerking for both Justice Marshall and Justice O’Connor has been a real highlight of my career. They were not only giants in the legal profession but extraordinary people. They have made an indelible impression on my career and commitment to making a positive social impact. I look forward to seeing how the justice President Biden nominates will fulfill her historic and vitally important role.

Having more diverse justices will hopefully expand the pool of talented law students who will be considered for clerkships, though it is incumbent on everyone in the profession — from law professors to lower court judges to the justices themselves — to cast a wider net.”