Here Come the Judges: Black Women Ascending to the Federal Bench
March 15, 2023
“Let’s finish the job” is a line that the president used throughout his 2023 State of the Union speech. It became the exclamation point at the end of calls for bipartisan action, such as capping insulin costs and taxing the wealthy.
Days and weeks later, those four words still echo as a reminder that changing the face of the federal judiciary is a team sport. The most powerful person in the world cannot make change happen alone. Our most recent appointment to the highest court illustrates that we have work to do.
In 2022, Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, 232 years after the Court was established and after 115 Justices had been appointed to it. Yet even with this historic appointment, Black women remain underrepresented in the Federal Judiciary.
As the numbers show, the fights for representation on the courts must continue. The American Bar Association’s Black Women on the Federal Bench profile notes that “… there were 59 Black female judges among the 1,409 sitting Article III judges in the federal court system on July 1, 2022, according to the Federal Judicial Center, the education and research agency of the federal courts. That included 54 judges who identified themselves as Black or African American, and five who identified as partly Black or African American. Most serve at the federal trial court level – the U.S. district courts. Of the 1,088 sitting judges on federal district courts, there were 48 Black women as of July 1, 2022. That’s just 4.4% of all the district court judges. California had six Black female judges in district court, while Illinois and New York each had four. Twenty-seven states had none. On the appeals court level, 10 Black female judges were among the 292 sitting judges on July 1, 2022. That’s 3.4% of all appeals court judges.”
Fortunately, over the past two years more Black women sit on the federal bench. To keep the momentum going, we need to lift our collective voices during the long judicial nomination process in which the President nominates federal judges and the Senate approves nominees.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has the power to delay or stop the president’s choice. In a smooth process, a simple majority of the Committee and full Senate confirm the nominee. Since 1966 when President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Constance Baker Motley to the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, Democratic presidents have nominated more Black women judicial candidates than Republicans. Full stop. Democrats have appointed more Black judges than Republicans. PERIOD.
Among Democratic presidents from Johnson and Biden, 49 Black women joined the federal bench. In contrast, Republican presidents from Nixon to Trump appointed only 13 Black female judges. The majority of the Black women on the federal bench were appointed by Presidents Obama (26), Clinton (15) and Carter (7). Democratic presidents appoint Black women to the federal bench at three times the rate of Republican presidents.
We are still breaking judicial barriers. President Biden’s appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is just a part of the story. President Biden has eclipsed Obama, Clinton and Carter in the percentage of Black women appointed. “As of Feb. 1, Black women have accounted for around a quarter (24%) of Biden’s appointed judges – far higher than the percentages for any other president, including Obama (8%) and Clinton (4%)”.
As of February 14, 2023, 26 of Biden’s first 100 judicial nominees confirmed have been Black women. Among the first 30 judicial nominees, Biden appointed 12 Black women to the Circuit Courts.
President Biden and the Democratically controlled Senate confirmed 105 Article III judges by February 16, 2023. The confirmations breakdown as follows:
- 1 justice to the U.S. Supreme Court (1 Black woman)
- 30 circuit court judges (12 Black women),
- 74 district court judges (12 Black women), and
- No judges to the U.S. Court of International Trade.
The good news keeps coming. Biden’s 101st judicial confirmation was a Black woman. She now sits on a District Court in Oregon. There are at least 7 Black women whose federal nominations are pending and 85 judicial seats open as of February 18, 2023. However, we must keep our foot on the gas.
The reason we have our first Black woman on the US Supreme Court is because we demanded it. During a debate in February 2020, presidential candidate Joe Biden promised to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court. His promise was fulfilled almost 2 years later, when Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was nominated on February 25, 2022.
To make the federal courts better reflect the populations that they serve, the record is clear which party will get you there. If federal judges are important to us, then we must let those we elect to the Senate and as President know that this is a priority.
Judge Constance Baker Motley, first African American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, and the first to serve as a federal judge, said it best: “Something which we think is impossible now is not impossible in another decade.”
Holli Holliday, President, Sisters Lead Sisters Vote
Chantel Mullen, Director of Special Projects, Sisters Lead Sisters Vote
This article was originally published in Black Women in the United States and Key States, 2023 report issued by the Black Women’s Roundtable. https://2023bwrreport.info/black-women-changing-the-face-of-the-federal-judiciary/