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Thursday December 8th

Editorial: The significance of Ketanji Brown Jackson's Supreme Court appointment

U.S. Supreme Court Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson meets with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in his office on Capitol Hill, on April 5, 2022, in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/TNS.
Buy Photos U.S. Supreme Court Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson meets with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in his office on Capitol Hill, on April 5, 2022, in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/TNS.

Last week, the Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, making her the first Black woman to be elevated to the nation’s highest court. 

Jackson, the sixth woman to serve on the Supreme Court, was confirmed in a 53-47 vote, with only three Republicans and all 50 Democrats in the Senate backing her. Since the U.S. Supreme Court was established in 1789, out of 115 justices have served on the bench, all but seven have been white men.

Jackson not only serves as a role model for Black women, but has also been driven by Black women before her. In her Supreme Court confirmation hearing opening statement, she cited Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge, as a role model and inspiration. 

"Like Judge Motley, I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building — 'Equal Justice Under Law' — are a reality and not just an ideal,” Jackson said. 

Her confirmation, however, did not come without difficulty. Jackson faced grandstands and questioning from Republican members of Congress that had little to do with her qualifications or experiences as a judge. 

Republican legislators used this time to question her platforms related to critical race theory and gender identity — and even went so far as to say that her experiences indicated she was lenient with those charged with possessing child sexual abuse imagery. 

Jackson had to absorb this questioning and overt political theater that Supreme Court nomination proceedings have historically turned into, which she was forced to handle with poise and endurance — even under intense public scrutiny. 

Past Supreme Court justices, such as Justice Brett Michael Kavanaugh, whose anger and emotions were visibly on display during parts of his questioning, have historically been given more leniency during this process. 

But there were positive moments during this process, such as Senator Cory Booker telling Jackson: “You have earned this spot. You are worthy.”

It helps remind us how historical a moment Jackson's nomination is, especially at UNC Law and law programs across the country, where people of color, and particularly Black students, are disproportionately misrepresented. 

Minority admissions into law schools reflect this longstanding trend. In 2019, only 28 percent of law school admissions in North Carolina were from members of underrepresented groups. 

Further, Black enrollment in law school also dropped for the fourth consecutive year in 2019, according to data from Enjuris. Several underlying reasons may correlate with this, including academic and financial barriers related to entry exams and undergraduate experiences. There is also a huge disparity between law students applying to law school versus those attaining enrollment.

The nomination and confirmation of Jackson to the Supreme Court has fostered a discussion about the historic lack of diversity on the nation's highest court. This has also further highlighted the absence of Black judges on not just the Supreme Court, but on the federal judiciary's lower courts as well.

Of the 3,852 people who have been confirmed as federal judges in the U.S., 240 of them — 6 percent — have been Black, and 71 of them have been Black women, less than 2 percent.

In North Carolina, white men make up less than one-third of the state's population but two-thirds of the state's judges. 

Only two other Black justices, Clarence Thomas and Thurgood Marshall, have served on the Supreme Court so far.  

We feel the consequences of this intimately, specifically in how biases, prejudices and a lack of diverse perspectives affect judicial proceedings. Judges are expected to make impartial decisions on issues impacting our increasingly diverse country, yet judicial benches are trailing behind in this crucial shift.

Judge Edward M. Chen, the first Asian American judge appointed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, expressed in an Enjuris article how diversity is an especially compelling issue for the judiciary because it's "the business of the courts to dispense justice fairly and administer the laws equally." 

"It's the branch of government ultimately charged with safeguarding constitutional rights, particularly protecting the rights of vulnerable and disadvantaged minorities against encroachment by the majority," Chen wrote.

The Supreme Court has laid out decisions that affect much of the nation's population, including decisions regarding segregated schools, abortions and refusing services based on religious beliefs. 

But, many times, the court will decide on cases that none of the nine justices can personally relate to nor revolve around issues they've experienced in their lifetimes. 

For example, in the landmark 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case, which legalized same-sex marriage, none of the Supreme Court justices who decided on the case identified as gay.

According to the American Bar Association, only 5 percent of lawyers are Black, contributing to the underrepresentation of Black lawyers in the legal profession more broadly.

Having a role model on the Supreme Court bench could also lead to more representation of Black students — especially Black women — in the legal profession. This is another reason why Jackson’s confirmation is so important. 

The ability to see oneself represented — whether it be through gender, race, religion or sexuality — inspires others to follow their own dreams and passions, which may be the most important aspect of Jackson’s confirmation.

Jackson’s confirmation serves as a step forward in diversifying the highest court in the land. Her confirmation also serves as a great example of the importance of Black role models — not only for future Black lawyers, but Black professionals as a whole.

@dthopinion

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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