Reviews | The Meaning of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court Nomination

A year earlier, Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to serve as a federal judge, had her confirmation withheld for seven months amid accusations that she was a communist sympathizer when she was younger. By the time of her appointment, she had become the nation’s most accomplished litigator. She had been hired by Judge Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at a time when few firms were hiring female attorneys, let alone black female attorneys.

She has successfully litigated cases desegregating Clemson University, the University of Georgia, and the University of Mississippi. She had represented the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Albany, Ga. and Birmingham, Ala. She was the first black female lawyer to appear before the Supreme Court – winning nine of her 10 cases there. After leaving the Legal Defense Fund, she served in the New York State Senate and served as Manhattan Borough President.

And yet, she faced a barrage of attempts to discredit her and her vast experience. As shameful as these tactics are, they are telling. Senator Eastland was not mistaken about the threat posed by the elevations of Justice Marshall and Justice Motley. The advancement of blacks into positions of power traditionally held by whites is a threat to white supremacy. It frustrates a narrative on merit, threatens the expectation of unlimited control and power, and opens the door to seeing things from a different perspective.

When that black person is someone who has fought for racial justice or who unabashedly brings experiences and perspectives to the table that have the potential to disrupt mainstream approaches to how the law is understood and applied, it opens a portal to see aspects of our society that are too often beyond the sight of those in power. Reflecting on what Marshall brought to the court lecture, Judge Byron White wrote, “He usually told us things we knew but would rather forget; and he told us many things that we did not know due to the limitations of our own experience.

That’s why, while Judge Jackson’s confirmation is unlikely to change the outcome of the issues before the court, firmly in the thrall of her conservative majority of six, she has the potential to broaden the perspective that is brought to the way these issues are debated and discussed at the Court’s conference. This is how the change begins – by destabilizing the comfortable narratives, with the inclusion of those that have not been seen. Thus, Judge Jackson, a well-respected judge whose case is under review by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, but who can hardly be called radical, has already been accused of being a tool of the left and her two-year and a half of noble service as a public defender as proof of his softness towards crime.

These attacks from his opposition are a shrewd acknowledgment that even a judge without the kind of civil rights pedigree of Judge Marshall or Judge Motley has the potential to disrupt what could be seen as a clear path to dismantling the protections of long standing civil rights and criminal justice. And we have seen the impact of such disruption. Judge Sotomayor was a prosecutor before becoming a judge. But his voice came across as a powerful and fascinating counterpoint to the conservative majority. His disagreements sting. And they are supposed to.

Every crack in the armor of racial and sexual exclusion produces outsized opposition precisely because of its potential to destabilize existing norms and systems. Judge Jackson surely recognized this when she paid tribute to Judge Motley at last week’s press conference announcing his appointment, when she said she shared Judge Motley’s commitment to equal justice before the law. There will be inspiring moments and there will be ugly and unwarranted attacks during Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearing. But it will be vindicated. And something on the ground, and in our expectations, will change.

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