Clarke Perkins has wanted to be a lawyer for more than a decade. She wasn’t shy about sharing that goal with students while teaching social studies and history in Cleveland, Ohio, before pursuing her dream.
“As a Black teacher at a predominantly Black high school, I would tell my students about the difference lawyers could make in people’s lives. I’d tell them how I wanted to be a lawyer for that reason, and how they should consider it, too,” Perkins remembered. “But when only 4.7% of lawyers in America are Black, and less than 2% are Black women, it’s sometimes hard to imagine our dreams becoming a reality.”
That dream is getting a historic boost as the US Senate prepares to begin confirmation hearings for the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to replace the retiring Justice Stephen Breyer on the US Supreme Court.
The hearings are scheduled to begin March 21 and, if confirmed, Jackson would become the first Black woman to serve on America’s highest court. While supporters of Jackson’s nomination laud the importance of having a government as diverse as the population it serves, critics complain that the decision to explicitly seek out a Black female for the seat excluded many qualified candidates from consideration, among other complaints.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, George Washington University law professor Johnathan Turley bemoaned selecting “the next justice first and foremost on race and sex.”
But Perkins, who is now in law school at Tulane University in New Orleans, sees an inspiring choice for her and countless others.
“Law school is difficult and competitive for everyone, but Black women face discrimination from two sides — being African American and being female — and it sometimes feels impossible,” Perkins said. “But to see Judge Jackson, who had to work so hard to get where she is, now so close to reaching the pinnacle – everything seems possible.”
Diversity brings hope
Jackson, a federal appellate judge, comes from a family dedicated to public service. She was born in Washington and grew up in Miami, Florida. She is the daughter of two public school teachers, though her father eventually became chief attorney for the Miami-Dade County School Board.
After graduating cum laude from Harvard Law School, Jackson began her legal career as a public defender.
Jackson’s story is resonating with many girls, women and minorities across the country. That includes Angel Williams, a student at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law and a member of the campus Black Law Student Association.
“When she [Jackson] told her high school guidance counselor she wanted to go to Harvard, she was told not to ‘set her sights too high.’ But look at her now,” Williams said, adding that Jackson’s story is an inspiration to her and countless other Black women law students.
“Entering a field that is 95% white, I’ve been told my hair is unprofessional, that my tone of voice is too disagreeable and countless other things that aren’t connected to my performance as a law student,” Williams said. “But to see a Black woman finally regarded as one of the greatest legal minds in the country gives me hope.”
Many in favor of Jackson’s nomination celebrate it as a necessary though long overdue step toward diversity at the pinnacle of America’s judiciary.
“Having a government that reflects the diversity of the people it serves strengthens the foundation of our democracy,” said Christopher Kang, co-founder and chief counsel of Demand Justice, a left-leaning advocacy group focused on the political makeup of America’s judicial system . “It’s long past time for a Black woman Supreme Court justice.”
Kang said the color of Jackson’s skin is far from the only reason she would strengthen the Supreme Court. He believes her history as a public defender, followed by more than four years of work on the US Sentencing Commission and stints as a federal judge, combine to form an outstanding legal résumé.
“Judge Jackson is one of the most qualified Supreme Court nominees in history,” he told VOA. “She has more judicial experience than half the justices had combined when they were confirmed, and she has more trial court judge experience than any Supreme Court nominee in nearly 100 years.”
By nominating Jackson, President Joe Biden satisfies two promises he made during the 2020 presidential campaign. One promise was to nominate the first public defender to the Supreme Court.
“It’s a perspective that is underrepresented in our judiciary,” Kang said, “and which gives her a deep and unique understanding of the legal experiences of people who cannot afford a lawyer.”
The other promise Biden made was to nominate a Black woman to the bench for the first time in American history. Fulfilling that promise has drawn criticism that setting aside positions for minorities amounts to reverse discrimination.
“This administration is going to discriminate,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said during an interview on Fox News Sunday. “What the president said is that only African American women are eligible for this slot, that 94% of Americans are inligible.”
Jackson’s nomination raised some eyebrows in light of a case currently before the Supreme Court. Later this year, the court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of admissions standards in higher education that take race into consideration to promote diverse student bodies.
Josh Blackman, professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, said Biden isn’t the first president to consider demographics when picking a Supreme Court nominee. Former President Donald Trump, he noted, opted to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with another female, nominating Amy Barrett in 2020. The same may have been true when former President HW Bush tapped Clarence Thomas, an African American, to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first Black justice, in 1991.
“The difference here is that presidents don’t usually announce those demographic considerations out loud,” Blackman told VOA. “But President Biden did, and that sent a clear signal that he was excluding from consideration anyone who didn’t meet that criteria.”
“It is our time”
Jackson’s supporters believe criticism of her nomination ignores centuries of discrimination against minorities.
“Not choosing any Black women up until now is what’s racist and sexist,” said Nanette Collins, law librarian and adjunct professor at Texas Southern University. “White people have been given jobs over qualified Black candidates because of their race since this country was founded. It is our time to have seats at the table and to get a few of those jobs,” she told VOA.
In an evenly divided Senate, Democrats hold just enough votes to confirm Jackson on their own if they all vote in favor. Three Republicans backed her in a previous Senate confirmation vote, though there is no guarantee they will vote in favor of Jackson for the high court.
However the confirmation process plays out, Clarke Perkins wants senators to be mindful of the inspiration Jackson could provide to countless Americans by sitting on the high court.
“In law school, it sometimes feels like I’m at a disadvantage because there aren’t a lot of people I can look to and see myself and my story in,” she said, “but hopefully that’s about to change. I could have an example on the highest court in the land.”