Justice Reimagined: Black Federal Judges

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Lonita K. Baker, J.D.

President, National Bar Association

This past year was transformative for the federal judiciary. We witnessed confirmations of phenomenal Black women nominees from all sectors of the legal profession with varied and diverse backgrounds and stories. We proudly organized and advocated for our first Black woman Supreme Court justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and made history on district and circuit courts throughout the country. Just months into her tenure, we have witnessed Justice Jackson’s powerful impact on the Supreme Court. 

In one of her first oral arguments, Justice Jackson asked probing questions in a Voting Rights Act challenge to Alabama’s proposed redistricting maps, which a lower federal court found violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Law of 1965 by diluting Black voters’ influence. In a brilliant move, the first Black female justice flipped the conservative legal movement’s obsession with “history and tradition” as a binding legal principle on its head, pointing out that the history of the Voting Rights Act suggests it was a race-conscious statute implemented to help ensure that recently freed slaves were “actually brought equal to everyone else in society.” Justice Jackson also asked compelling questions in the oral arguments for challenges to Harvard College and the University of North Carolina’s race-conscious affirmative action policies, in which she voiced concerns that getting rid of affirmative action might create a scenario where some could express who they are and have that valued in the admissions process while others were limited and could significantly hinder applicants of color from entering elite institutions.15

Systemic racism in our justice system persists because our courts have always been predominantly white and male. The nation’s moral compass has been defined by the white male experience with grave consequences for disenfranchised communities. The Supreme Court continues to issue opinions and hear cases that undermine our basic freedoms, and the same radical push is being echoed by district and circuit courts across the country. It is more urgent than ever before to confirm impartial, fair- minded judges whose diverse perspectives reflect the lived experiences of the historically marginalized. To date, the Senate has confirmed 107 of President Biden’s lifetime judicial nominees, a majority of which were women and people of color. However, there is still more work to do to ensure that the courts become a truer reflection of the people they serve by promoting more Black women to the federal bench.

From rallying to end police violence and racial profiling to promoting healthcare access, Black women have shown up at the polls, at protests and in our communities. We have demonstrated that we are not only in support of policies and laws that will improve the lives of all Americans, but we are also willing to fight for them. Black women remain at the forefront of the push for a truer and more just democracy. National Bar Association members like Kristen Clarke, Sherrilyn Ifill, Barbara Arnwine, and Nancy Abudu fight for the rights of all Americans – even when certain presidential administrations failed to do so. These women embody what we are still fighting for: freedom to vote, freedom from gun violence, freedom to drink clean water, freedom to receive quality healthcare, freedom to quality education, and freedom to control our bodies.

It has been over a year since President Biden first nominated Nancy Abudu to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit – a needless delay of one of our nation’s leading appellate civil rights attorneys. Nancy has spent her career protecting the constitutional rights of Americans, no matter their race, religion, or political affiliation. After serving as a staff attorney with the Eleventh Circuit, she practiced in every state in the Circuit: at the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, in Atlanta, Georgia; the ACLU of Florida, in Miami, Florida; and the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.  With extensive experience practicing before numerous Circuit Courts of Appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court, Nancy is eminently qualified to serve on the Eleventh Circuit. Once confirmed, she will be the first Black woman on the Circuit and the first person of color from Georgia to serve on that court.

We have so much to celebrate as we step closer to our vision of justice. However, there is still more work to do.  We must both celebrate the rich diversity being added to our federal courts and continue to push for greater inclusivity. As the nation grows more diverse, the imperative to change the status quo is more urgent than ever. In a democracy of, for, and by the people, freedom and liberty cannot be delivered to all until our institutions authentically reflect the extraordinary diversity of people, perspectives, and contributions that make our country special. The National Bar Association remains determined to see our justice system reimagined as we reset, resist and act to ensure this country’s promise of freedom and democracy for all.

15 https://www.theguardian.com/law/2022/nov/01/ketanji-brown-jackson-affirmative-action-higher-education-admissions