February 28, 2022 – As the Senate prepares to hold hearings on the historic nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman nominated to sit on the Supreme Court, it’s the perfect time to highlight a new biography about another Black woman who accomplished a series of firsts and who, in another, more modern, era, would almost certainly have been nominated to serve on the Supreme Court – Constance Baker Motley.
Constance Baker Motley was not only the first Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court (winning an astonishing nine of 10 cases), but she was also the first black woman to be appointed to the federal judiciary – President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the Southern District of New York.
Motley began college at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, but subsequently transferred to New York University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She received her Bachelor of Laws from Columbia Law School. Motley then went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. as a civil rights lawyer, where she wrote the original complaint in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. Her first argument before the Supreme Court was in Meredith v. Fair; she won James Meredith’s effort to be the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi.
In her terrific new book on Motley’s life and legacy – called “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality“- Harvard law professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin Poignantly describes Motley’s life from the time that she was born to a working-class family during the Great Depression, to her role as one of the principal strategists of the Civil Rights Movement and for her legal defense of Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders, and the Birmingham Children Marchers when she was a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP, to her service in the New York State Senate and as Manhattan Borough President, to her becoming the first Black woman serving in the federal judiciary.
February 25, 2022 – On January 26, 2022, Justice Stephen Gerald Breyer notified the White House that he would retire at the end of the 2021-2022 term. One month later, on February 25, 2022, President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, beginning a historic confirmation process for the first Black woman to sit on the highest court in the nation in its 223-year history.
Judge Jackson, who clerked for Justice Breyer, has worked as a public defender, a corporate attorney, a U.S. District Court judge, is currently sitting on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. “If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed as the next associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States,” Judge Jackson commented in her prepared remarks about her nomination, “I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded, will inspire future generations of Americans.”
If confirmed, Justice Jackson won’t alter the Supreme Court’s ideological far-right conservative tilt because the overall makeup of the court will continue to include six conservatives and three liberals. Unfortunately, despite winning the popular vote in 7 of the last 8 elections, the Republicans have rigged the system to achieve a radical conservative majority. Indeed, when Justice Antonin Gregory Scalia died in February of an election year (2016), President Barack Hussein Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland would have, if confirmed by the Senate, flipped the then five-to-four conservative court to a five-to-four liberal one. But Senator Mitch McConnel and his Republican caucus refused to hold a hearing on Garland’s nomination on the theory that court vacancies that arise during presidential election years should remain unfilled until the next president takes office. Then, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in an election year (September 2020, less than two months before the presidential election), Senator Mitch McConnel and his Republican cronies hypocritically changed the rules and confirmed President Donald John Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett with lightning speed. “And just like that,” as Carrie Bradshaw would say, what should have been a 6 – 3 liberal court majority became the most radical right-wing conservative court since the Lochner era of 1897 to 1937.