MADAM-JUSTICE: A Quick History of the Black Women Judges Who Pioneered in American Jurisprudence
The Black American judicial heroines who preceded SCOTUS Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, ultimately paving the way for her historic nomination.
By: Ian L. Courts, Esq.
On February 25th, 2022, President Joseph R. Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the United States Supreme Court, fulfilling a campaign promise to place the first Black Woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Jackson, a current federal appellate judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, a Harvard law graduate and distinguished jurist, comes from a legacy of Black Women leading in the judicial office. This discussion will highlight a few of the black judicial heroines that trailblazed a path for Judge Jackson’s historic nomination.
Judge Jane Bolin, first Black Woman judge in the United States
On July 22, 1939, Fiorello La Guardia, the Mayor of New York City appointed Jane Bolin, a Yale Law graduate, Republican, and attorney in the New York City Law Department to the city’s Domestic Relations Court. Judge Bolin became the first Black woman judge in the United States. Judge Bolin was known as a distinguished legal scholar, advocate for children, and a tireless partner in justice with First lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Judge Bolin broke the ground for the rest of the women on this list, eventually opening up a path for Judge Jackson’s SCOTUS nomination.
Judge Constance Baker Motley, first Black Woman federal judge
On January 26, 1966, President Lyndon Banes Johnson appointed a Columbia Law graduate, civil rights icon, historic state senator, and an attorney-colleague to Thurgood Marshall to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Judge Motley’s nomination and later confirmation cemented her place in judicial history because she became the first Black Woman federal judge — some 27 years after Judge Bolin’s historic appointment. Judge Motley pioneered for women’s rights and the civil rights of Black Americans. Judge Motley was even considered for the US Supreme Court, and later became the first Black Woman Chief Judge of a federal district court in 1982. Judge Jackson’s nomination, likely would have been more difficult without Judge Motley’s historic ascension.
Judge Elreta Milton-Alexander, first Black woman elected to a state district court
In November of 1968, the citizens of of the former confederate state of North Carolina elected one of its native daughters, a Columbia Law graduate and trailblazing civil rights attorney to the district court bench, that daughter was Judge Elreta Alexander — the first Black woman elected to a state district court judgeship. Judge Alexander was the first Black Woman to graduate from Columbia law school, and had recently tried a case where her client, a black man, was accused of raping a white woman. Judge Alexander a Republican, was known as a tough advocate in the courtroom, and a pusher for progress within the Black community. Judge Alexander won re-election three times to the district court. However, despite her noted legal knowledge, and historicity, she lost her bid for the position of Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court in the 1974 election to a fireman, with no legal background which prompted the state to require law degrees for judicial candidates. Judge Alexander’s historic ascension, two years after Judge Motley’s appointment, and almost three decades after Judge Bolin’s appointment, was another milestone in the road that has led to Judge Jackson’s SCOTUS nomination.
Judge Amayla Lyle Kearse, first Black Woman federal appellate judge
On May 3, 1979, President Jimmy Carter, appointed a University of Michigan Law graduate, Bridge player, and lawyer to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Kearse’s nomination was the first time a Black Woman was appointed to a federal court of appeal — 40 years after Judge Bolin’s appointment and over a decade after Judge Motley’s appointment. Judge Kearse’s nomination and confirmation cemented her place on three president’s Supreme Court shortlists. Moreover, Judge Kearse’s ascension placed a Black Woman one court closer to the United States Supreme Court, a place Judge Jackson may one day soon serve on. Judge Kearse currently serves in a senior judicial capacity within the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
Justice Juanita Kidd Stout,the first Black woman elected as a judge and to serve on a state supreme court
In 1959, the people of Philadelphia elected an Indiana Law graduate, former district attorney, law clerk to Judge William Hastie — the first Black federal judge, to the city’s Municipal Court, making her the first Black woman elected to a judgeship. In 1988, Justice Kidd Stout would make history again as the first Black woman appointed to a state supreme court — the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the oldest state Supreme Court in the United States, even older than the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Juanita Kidd Stout was known as a mentor, judicial scholar, and prominent attorney. The Philadelphian justice center is named after her. Justice Kidd Stout’s ascension opened the realm of possibilities for Black Women attorneys with aspirations to sit on a state supreme court, paving a way for Judge Jackson’s SCOTUS nomination.
Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, first Black Woman chief justice of a state supreme court
In June of 2005, the people of Georgia elected an Emory Law graduate and experienced jurist as Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Chief Justice Ward Sears’s election made her the first Black woman Chief Justice of a state supreme court. Chief Justice Ward Sears served as a state traffic court judge, superior court judge, associate justice on the state supreme court prior to her election as the Chief Justice of the state’s supreme court. Chief Justice Ward Sears was an advocate for women and families, and judicial pragmatism. Additionally, President Barack Obama considered Chief Justice Ward Sears for the Supreme Court of the United States. Today, Chief Justice Ward Sears serves as a partner in a Georgia law firm, and as a mentor for young attorneys across the country. Chief Justice Ward Sears’s election was another milestone in the path blazed by Black Women jurists, culminating in Judge Jackson’s SCOTUS nomination.
Black woman have contributed greatly to American democracy as a whole, and specifically to our American jurisprudence. SCOTUS Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson is not an anomaly, diversity pick, or whatever else the Right-Wing camp may spew, nay, she is continuing the legacy of judicial excellence that was tilled before her nomination. I look forward to Judge Jackson’s confirmation as the first Black American Woman, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.