The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ketanji Brown Jackson is standing on the shoulders of Black female pioneers

Breaking glass ceilings on the judiciary has taken perfect qualifications, tenacity and more

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson on March 8 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

A previous version of this article misspelled the first names of two people. The New York mayor who appointed Jane Bolin to the bench is Fiorello La Guardia, not Fiorella. The first Black female federal appellate judge’s name is Amalya Kearse, not Amayla. This version has been corrected.

Senate confirmation hearings begin Monday for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court.

By any objective measure, she is well qualified for the position. Jackson is Ivy League educated, having earned both her bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard. She has a diversity of work experience, including as a federal public defender, a member of the Sentencing Commission and in various large law firms. The breadth of her law practice experience exceeds that of any sitting justice. She clerked for Justice Stephen G. Breyer, whom she is nominated to succeed, after previously clerking for a district court judge and a circuit court of appeals judge.

Despite all this, we know that as a Black woman the path from here to confirmation has been and will be challenging for Jackson. Indeed, over the past month she has encountered head winds based on nothing more than the identity politics of her opponents.

Jackson is not alone in facing roadblocks. The path to the bench for Black women has required navigating structural barriers in the legal profession, including a historically smaller pool of places to get a legal education, a more limited network of potential mentors, sponsors and clients, fewer professional opportunities and less frequent direct access to the power players who make and break judgeships. Despite the opposition and the solitude of walking an uncharted path, Black women have progressed by learning to navigate these obstacles. They have, with great intentionality and effort, overcome the dual hurdles of racism and sexism to forge important alliances, open doors for others and exemplify graceful fortitude. Once again, Monday, Jackson personifies these hard-won skills.

Twenty-five years after the first Black lawyer in the United States was sworn into the bar of Maine, Howard Law School opened its doors to Black and female applicants in 1869. At a time when no lawyer had granted an apprenticeship to Black women and virtually no law school admitted them through their doors, Charlotte E. Ray graduated from Howard Law School in 1872.

Her law school experience was positive. Her professional experience working in the practice of law was not, and her law practice in Washington did not survive. Though she was recognized as one of the best corporate law specialists in the country, she was unable to attract sufficient clients because of prejudice and discrimination. (It would take almost another 100 years for Wall Street to make Amalya Kearse, a Black woman, a partner at one of its law firms.) A lack of clients prevented Ray from practicing law, and she relocated to New York, where she worked as an educator.

Still, Ray broke down the barriers that allowed other early Black female lawyers to succeed in getting into law school and then legal practice — providing a template for navigating the structural barriers within a profession that had been designed by and for White men.

Several decades later, Jane Bolin, the first Black female judge in the United States, followed in her path to become the first Black woman admitted to Yale Law School. But even her Yale law degree did not provide Bolin with opportunities commensurate with those of her White classmates. And like Ray, her private practice did not survive because of a lack of clients. Yet, she found other open doors. Bolin got a job as a New York Corporation counsel, a government lawyer, which led to her appointment to the bench by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1939, an extraordinary achievement by any measure.

She had a successful 10-year tenure, in which she handled 3,000 cases and was never reversed on appeal. But, the historic nature of Bolin’s judgeship along with the pride and confidence it inspired in the Black community were almost casualties of a political war among New York political giants. Mayor William O’Dwyer, a political adversary of LaGuardia, did not want to reappoint someone not in his political faction. Bolin prevailed upon her friend Eleanor Roosevelt, who successfully intervened on her behalf, and she went on to serve four decades on the New York courts. During the first two decades of her tenure from 1939 to 1959, she was the only Black female judge in the entire country.

On her path to the bench, the first Black female federal court judge, Constance Baker Motley, had to maneuver along a similarly tricky path. President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to appoint her to the seat previously held by her mentor and former NAACP Legal Defense Fund colleague, Thurgood Marshall, a steppingstone to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But he encountered vociferous opposition from inside and outside his party. Conservative Southern “Dixiecrats” such as the powerful Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee James O. Eastland (D-Miss.) were opposed to Motley on blatantly racist grounds. And, influential Democrats such as Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) were opposed to her on political ones. Johnson relented and put her name forward, instead, for the district court. This impeded Motley’s ascension to the court that is merely one step from the Supreme Court, blocking her path to potentially becoming the first Black female justice. But, like those Black female judges before her, she never stopped mentoring and training a new generation of lawyers and judges.

From 1966 through 1979, only two other Black women would be appointed to the federal courts — Mary Johnson Lowe and Gabrielle Kirk McDonald. The next glass ceiling wasn’t broken until 1979, when Kearse was appointed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals — making her the first Black female federal appellate judge.

This history exposes that although Jackson has successfully traversed the Senate three previous times — most recently, just one year ago — which bodes well for her nomination, there are no guarantees when elected officials decide to play politics. In those cases, exceptional qualifications, outstanding judicial service and pioneering efforts to break glass ceilings do little to shield a nominee.

Vigilance, courage and strong allies are needed to support Jackson and the other Black women who have had to fight every step of the way to get, keep and pass on opportunities to the next generation. While Jackson sits in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she’ll be standing on the shoulders of the generations of Black female lawyers before her and living the culmination of decades of struggle.