More Black Women Are Serving on Federal Circuit Courts Than Ever Before. We’re Pushing for More.
On January 4, 1995, the Indiana Supreme Court got a new member. Until then, 102 justices had served on the court — all White men. But Justice Myra Selby, who was welcomed to the court in a brief ceremony that day, broke barriers as the first Black person and first woman to join the bench.
“I hope to become a symbol for young children, girls and boys of all colors, shapes, and sizes,” Justice Selby said, “so they, too, can reach for that highest star that they might dream of.”
More than two decades later, Justice Selby was on the cusp of making even more history when President Barack Obama, in January 2016, nominated her to an Indiana seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Selby would have been the first Black person and first woman from Indiana to serve on this court as well, but Senate Republicans blocked her nomination — refusing to even hold a hearing. When President Trump took office the following year, he nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the seat instead.
On Monday, nearly seven years after Selby’s nomination, the Senate confirmed Judge Doris Pryor to the Seventh Circuit — making her, finally, the first Black judge from Indiana to serve on the court. But Judge Pryor’s confirmation — a long overdue moment for judicial diversity — was remarkable for another reason: Before President Biden took office, only eight Black women had ever served as federal circuit court judges. When the Senate approved her nomination on Monday, Judge Pryor became the ninth Black woman confirmed to a federal circuit court under President Biden — whose commitment to diversifying the federal bench has resulted in him now appointing more than half of all Black women circuit court judges in our nation’s history.
In our nation's history, only 17 Black women have been confirmed to federal circuit courts.
Black women confirmed to federal circuit courts before Biden took office: 8
Black women confirmed to federal circuit courts since Biden took office: 9
And we continue to push for more.
— The Leadership Conference (@civilrightsorg) December 6, 2022
So few Black women have served at this level of our federal judiciary that the first Black woman appointed to an appeals court — Judge Amalya Kearse, who joined the Second Circuit in 1979 — is still serving on the court today as a senior circuit judge.
And here’s what we know: More racially diverse courts include the perspectives of communities who have been traditionally excluded from seats of power in the judiciary’s formal and informal decisionmaking, and judges from different demographic and legal backgrounds infuse more viewpoints into judges’ deliberations. A diverse court helps communities trust that judicial decisions are fair and do not favor a select few like the wealthy and powerful.
That is why the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson earlier this year as the first Black woman and first public defender on our nation’s highest court was so critically important. During her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, she told Senate Judiciary Committee members that judicial diversity “lends confidence that the rulings that the court is handing down are fair and just, that everything has been considered, that no one is being excluded because of a characteristic like race, or gender, or anything else. And that’s important.”
Of course, before she was Justice Jackson, she was Judge Jackson of the D.C. Circuit — the first circuit court judge confirmed under President Biden.
We celebrate the historic and important confirmations of Black women appellate court judges confirmed since 2021, and we look forward to even more history being made in the weeks and months ahead.
- J. Michelle Childs, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
- Tiffany Cunningham, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
- Stephanie Dawkins Davis, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
- Arianna Freeman, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
- Ketanji Brown Jackson, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, now serving on the U.S. Supreme Court
- Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
- Eunice Lee, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
- Doris Pryor, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
- Holly Thomas, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
- Nancy Abudu, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
- DeAndrea Benjamin, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
- Dana Douglas, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
- Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
Click here to learn more about the progress we’re making in our work to build an equal justice judiciary.