The Joy and Inspiration of Seeing More Black Women Appointed to the Federal Bench

By Vivien Beadle

Tomorrow marks one year since the Senate confirmed Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson — on April 7, 2022 — to serve as the first Black woman and first former public defender on the U.S. Supreme Court. To some, this may not have been a big deal. But to me — a young Black woman in the United States — this nomination and confirmation were deeply meaningful.

Any time I see Black women succeeding, I feel extra proud. This moment, however, felt especially monumental. As someone who aspires to one day become a federal judge, seeing a Black woman nominated and confirmed to the highest court in the land reaffirmed my belief that this goal is not just a pipe dream, but is actually attainable by someone who looks like me.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ascension to the Court came at a pivotal moment for our nation. The Donald Trump presidency yielded many nominees to our federal judiciary who had demonstrated records of hostility to civil and human rights. In addition, 2022 was an especially hard year for those of us who follow the Supreme Court and its decisions that impact all of us — including the devastating majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Knowing that Justice Jackson would soon be serving on the Court offered me a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, the conservative majority on the Court is issuing and likely will continue to issue decisions that are out of step with long-standing precedent, our civil and human rights, and the beliefs of the majority of people in America. But having a Black woman — one whose impeccable qualifications include her demonstrated commitment to civil and human rights — on the Supreme Court is a giant leap towards creating a judicial system that not only reflects the makeup of the United States, but protects and upholds equal justice for all.

While Justice Jackson’s confirmation is absolutely historic and deserves celebration, we cannot forget about the work that President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Schumer, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Durbin have done to help create a professionally and demographically diverse federal judiciary at all levels — which The Leadership Conference highlighted in a recently released report.

Under President Trump, the Senate confirmed 234 Article III judges who were nearly 85 percent white and over 76 percent male. He refused to nominate Black individuals to any circuit courts during his four years in office. These statistics are frightening, as this is not at all what the United States looks like demographically. As soon as President Biden took office, he began working to reverse this trend. To date, the Senate has confirmed 119 of President Biden’s lifetime judicial nominees. Of these confirmations, more than 70 percent are women and more than two-thirds are people of color — a drastic difference when compared to President Trump’s confirmations.

Beyond the incredible demographic diversity of President Biden’s judicial nominees, his picks have also been experientially diverse, with dozens of former public defenders and civil rights lawyers already confirmed. All aspects of these nominations are inspiring to me — not only as a woman of color, but also as someone who has hopes of going into civil rights law in the future. The federal bench is no longer the good ole’ boys club the United States is used to — thanks to President Biden and Senate leadership, it is becoming more representative and reflective of our nation every day.

One particularly inspiring circuit court nominee is Nancy Abudu, nominated to a Georgia seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. She has dedicated her career to securing and advancing our civil rights at the ACLU, ACLU of Florida, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. If confirmed, Abudu would be the first Black woman to serve on the Eleventh Circuit — which includes Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. As a Georgia native, her nomination hits particularly close to home for me. I am elated to see that this nominee who looks like me, and who is committed to equal justice, will soon be serving my state and surrounding states.

The United States deserves federal judges who reflect all of its people — and who will use their wisdom and perspective to judge fairly and serve all of us. The Black women and girls of the United States deserve to see ourselves in our system of justice so we know that we too can one day be a federal judge or justice if we so choose, and so we have confidence that court decisions are informed by the perspectives of all our communities. Professional and demographic diversity makes the judiciary better for all of us. Diversity on the court leads to decision-making that is informed by various backgrounds and perspectives, rather than homogenous ones. A diverse group of judges leads to better decision-making — something we should all want.

In the words of Seventh Circuit Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi during her confirmation hearing in 2021: “I do believe that demographic diversity of all types, even beyond race, plays an important role in increasing public confidence in our courts and increases the public’s ability to accept the legitimacy of court decisions…I also think that demographic diversity of all types helps us achieve a role-modeling result for young students, law students, young lawyers — it’s important for anyone aspiring to public service to know that that path is open to all.”

Thanks to role models like Judge Jackson-Akiwumi, Justice Jackson, Nancy Abudu, and other barrier-breaking jurists and nominees, this path feels more open to me than ever.

Vivien Beadle is a spring 2023 undergraduate intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.