In his autobiography, The Vantage Point, President Lyndon B. Johnson commented on his historic nomination of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black male to the Supreme Court:
“I chose [Marshall] for [his] competence, wisdom, and courage, not for the color of [his] skin. But, I also deeply believed that with [this] appointment, Negro mothers could look at their children and hope with good reason that someday their sons and daughters might reach the highest offices their government could offer.” (p. 179).
In 1967, Justice Marshall was confirmed by a bipartisan Senate (67-11). Three years later, Judge Ketanji Brown-Jackson was born to two remarkable teachers and community leaders, Johnny and Ellery Brown. Perhaps bolstered by the ratification of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s trailblazing nomination of Justice Marshall, they could realistically have viewed their immensely talented daughter as a candidate for the nation’s highest court someday. Like Justice Marshall, who went to Howard University, both of Brown-Jackson’s parents went to a historically Black College and University. Both became leaders in the field of education. So, Judge Brown-Jackson had not only love and guidance from her parents but also a realistic role model in Justice Thurgood Marshall and, as importantly, from President Lyndon B. Johnson .
In 1967, when Marshall was appointed, the chief impediments were from Democrats, not Republicans: 10 of the 11 “no” votes came from Democrats. Today, we might think long and hard why the ground has shifted since then and we should celebrate the change that has occurred, both in the Democratic party, but also in the trajectory of our country’s views on racial justice; we should celebrate that, however slowly, our country finally is beginning to recognize that all of its people are critically-needed assets, regardless of their ancestry, religion, or color.
President Biden is envisioning our nation’s great potential by nominating the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. Yes, he could have waited, and the span between confirmations would have been longer than 55 years (Marshall in 1967 to Brown-Jackson in 2022). But, how would that look to the Nation and to the parents of outstanding, competent, courageous children who have “wisdom” to reach the highest offices the government can offer and who coincidentally are Black? And how would waiting provide inspiration to those brilliant children of color whose involvement, insights, perspectives, and contributions we desperately need as our Nation faces an undeniably uncertain future?
Judge Ketanji Brown-Jackson’s opponents, like the eleven “no” votes against Justice Marshall, are pushing back on the nomination of a Black woman to the Supreme Court. Biden has been a courageous thought leader to look forward and to send a clear message, like Lyndon B. Johnson , to all those parents whose children are growing up with the hope of someday reaching the highest office. Why wait any longer? Sandra Day O’Conner’s parents waited patiently too, for the first woman to be nominated to the Supreme Court, a dream that became a reality when Ronald Regan nominated her in 1981 She was 51 at the time, just as Judge Ketanji Brown-Jackson is, right now. And, if we view Judge Ketanji Brown-Jackson’s nomination to be any different than Justice O’Connor’s historic nomination in 1981, we need to think long and hard about that too.
Many parents think their children have the makings of greatness and many people help, but it is still up to the child to get there. Judge Brown-Jackson went to high school in Southern Florida, not a place known for grooming Supreme Court justices. But, she emerged at the perfect time in our Nation’s history to be recognized, first in high school on the debate team, then in college and law school. Her debate performances launched a career as a federal public defender, where she often had to advocate for the worthy but sometimes lost causes of her indigent clients. The causes advanced by the best public defenders such as she always lean toward justice, fairness, and often times challenge structural power. Having the courage to take up such causes, which may seem insurmountable, leads to the making of a skilled advocate and a superb judge, regardless of gender or race. . I say “candidate” because not all talented advocates make great judges – much additional seasoning is needed. Clerking for experienced judges, including District Judge Patti B. Saris, First Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer developed Judge Brown-Jackson’s judicial temperament, her open mind, and her balanced approach to decision-making, all of which are essential ingredients of judicial greatness. As her testimony before Congress reveals, she has the inherent and well-developed personal strengths that President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized in Thurgood Marshall when he said Judge Marshall had “competence, wisdom and courage.” These skills are evident with Judge Jackson. And, like Justice Marshall, she will serve with distinction and dignity.
We are overdue for a Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. And, we are blessed that President Biden has recognized that now is the time.