Ketanji Brown Jackson is and is not the first black woman to stand trial
WASHINGTON (AP) — Shirley Troutman, a judge on New York’s highest court, was working last week when her daughter sent text messages that included a cheering emoji. Soon his phone was buzzing with more celebratory messages. The applause and excitement were for Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was confirmed last week to the United States Supreme Court. and will become his first black female judge.
Jackson will become the 116th member of the tribunal. It’s special for Troutman, who is also the 116th member of his court.
“As a judge, as a black woman, I am extremely proud and wish her the best,” said Troutman, who took her seat earlier this year and is the second black woman to serve on her court. She said she cried “tears of joy” on Thursday when Jackson was confirmed.
Troutman is among 17 black women and 14 black men who currently sit on their state’s highest court, according to the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, which has tracked the diversity of those courts.. The majority of women joined the bench in the past five years and, like Jackson, broke a barrier, becoming the first black woman to serve on their state’s high court. In interviews, some of these women described not only their own joy at Jackson’s confirmation, but also suggested that there was still work to be done to make America’s courts more representative of its citizens.
“I am so proud and optimistic of his accomplishment and what it means,” said Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Melissa Long.
Long, who joined his state’s High Court in 2021, also feels a “great sense of connection” with Jackson. They were born 10 days apart in 1970 in Washington, D.C. Long’s parents had married in the city because laws against interracial marriage, struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967prohibited them from marrying in Virginia.
Being the first black woman and first person of color on her state’s five-member court “feels like a responsibility,” Long said. “It’s a big responsibility, but it feels like a responsibility.”
This is partly because the overall diversity of state courts is lacking. People of color make up 17% of state supreme court justices, but as of last year, 22 states had high courts where no member identified as a person of color, according to the Brennan Center. In 11 of those states, minorities make up at least 20% of the population, according to the Brennan Center. About 30% of all federal judges, meanwhile, identify as people of color.
Those numbers help explain why Madiba Dennie of the Brennan Center says she’s suspicious of people who think Jackson’s confirmation means, “We did it.” We have a black woman on the Supreme Court now. There’s still work to be done, she said, with “huge disparities in the rest of federal justice and in state justice as well.”
The history of black women serving on their state’s highest court dates back to 1988, when Juanita Kidd Stout joined Pennsylvania’s highest court. It was seven years after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Stout served for a year before reaching mandatory retirement age. Today, the four men and three women in Pennsylvania’s highest court are all white.
Other state high courts are more diverse. Maryland has two black women in its highest court, the Court of Appeals, where members wear red robes with white collars and are called judge, not justice. Judge Shirley M. Watts joined the seven-member court in 2013 and Judge Michele D. Hotten in 2015.
In California, Judge Leondra Kruger was among the women President Joe Biden was considering nominating to fulfill his campaign promise to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court, if the opportunity arises. In Ohio, Judge Melody Stewart was a classically trained pianist before embarking on a career in law. And in Washington, Judge G. Helen Whitener is one of two gay judges and one of seven women on the nine-member state high court.
In Massachusetts, Kimberly Budd is chief justice of her court, a position she has held since 2020. Cheri Beasley, of North Carolina, served as chief justice of that state’s Supreme Court and is now a leading candidate in the Democratic primary for the 2022 US Senate elections.
Louisiana also until recently had a black woman heading its highest court. Bernette Johnson was elected to the court in 1994 and served as its leader from 2013 until her retirement in 2020. Today, Judge Piper D. Griffin is the second black woman and third black person to serve on this court.
Griffin called Jackson’s confirmation “surreal” and “humiliating.” “It was one of those things you never thought you’d see in your lifetime. You know, it’s kind of like you, you have hope, but you never expect it,” said Griffin, who was elected to her position in 2020.
Griffin said his phone “blew up” Thursday afternoon when Jackson was confirmed. “I got a lot of exclamation points,” she said. A friend, knowing Griffin couldn’t watch Vice President Kamala Harris announce live that Jackson had been confirmed, recorded the moment on her phone and texted her. Time and again, friends have texted a single word: Yes!
Troutman, the judge in New York’s highest court, said one of the things his daughter sent him that day was a photo of Jackson and the president kissing. It’s important that Jackson is the first black woman on the Supreme Court, Troutman said, but, “It’s very important that she’s not the last.”