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Friday, July 01, 2022
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Law students, attorneys reflect on Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation

Jackson was confirmed as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court Thursday

Seven seconds.

The amount of time it takes to tie a shoe, swipe on mascara, solve a riddle or make a good first impression. 

The length of a pause from Judge  Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman confirmed as  U.S. Supreme Court Justice — when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked if she believed babies could be racist.

“Senator,” she paused. “I do not believe that any child should be made to feel as though they are racist, or though they are not valued, or though they are less than, that they are victims, that they are oppressors.”

This was just one of many antagonizing moments in the barrage of questions Jackson faced throughout her four-day confirmation hearing in late March.

The Senate confirmed Jackson Thursday in a historic 53-47 vote. Three GOP senators — Susan Collins, R-Maine, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah — crossed party lines to secure the simple majority vote required. 

Cheers cried out from the Senate chamber and across America. But for many Black law students and attorneys, the interrogations she faced leading up to this moment reflected their everyday struggles in and out of the legal arena.

Some Black women like Janelle Rolle, a first-year student at UF Levin College of Law, believed the questioning highlighted the scrutiny that Black women endure despite their outstanding merit and qualifications.

“For Black women to be these people who are so highly educated, and who are so worthy and capable, we're constantly being questioned and deemed as ‘less than,’ even though there's nothing that indicates that perspective should be held,” she said.

Since the Supreme Court was established in 1789, 115 justices have served. Of those on the bench, 108 have been white men. Jackson is the third Black justice to serve on the court.

The American Bar Association’s 2021 Profile of the Legal Profession says that nearly all people of color are underrepresented in the legal profession compared with their makeup in the U.S. population. In 2021, 4.7% of all lawyers were Black compared to the U.S. population, which is 13.4% Black.

UF Levin College of Law touts its “commitment to excellence and diversity,” but only 7.4% of its students are Black or African American as of 2022.

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Rolle perceived the hearing as a reflection of select GOP senators’ implicit bias. Their questions concerning critical race theory and her stance on pedophilia were targeted and inappropriate, she said.

“It's very apparent that their issue is the fact that it's a Black woman because she's coming from the second highest court in the nation: the D.C. Court,” she said. “There should be no reason for the questions that are being asked.”

Before being confirmed for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, she was a public defender, representing defendants who could not pay for a lawyer.

She’s the first former federal public defender to serve on the highest court.

The diversity that Jackson will bring to the court is extremely important to Rolle, who has lived for 23 years without a justice who looks like her serving on the bench.

“To have all these laws that have been passed, and the Constitution read by all these eyes for all these years, and never, not once, has someone who has lived my experience even remotely … made any statements on what they feel the Constitution says or stands for is pretty astonishing,” she said.

The Supreme Court is the court of last resort for legal issues that affect Americans' everyday lives, but it has never included a Black female justice in its 232 years of decision-making.

A cornerstone of U.S. democracy, the highest court is now more representative of America, which lends it more legitimacy in the eyes of Kristen Hardy, a legal skills professor at UF Levin College of Law.

“[The] confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson wasn't just a great day for Black women, or Black women lawyers, but it was a great day for the democratic institutions in this country and in the perception of fairness and equality in the judicial system,” she wrote in an email.

Hardy watched the confirmation hearing in between meetings and teaching classes. She expected a certain degree of vitriol but was not prepared for the divisiveness, disrespect and lack of civility, she wrote.

Racism in the legal field is still a reality she endures, and she understands the pain on the receiving end of the GOP’s questions.

“I was watching it with my mom, who, like Judge Jackson's mom, is a school principal,” she added. “We were overcome with emotion as we sat there and watched Judge Jackson endure such behavior with grace and dignity.”

Judge Jackson maintained her composure during attacks on her background as a federal public defender and her stance on crime.

She worked on the front lines of the criminal justice system, exposed to the everyday struggles of Americans. In a government of the people, by the people, for the people, citizens like Kennedy Simon believe it’s crucial to have a justice in the Supreme Court who thinks about criminal law with a unique perspective.

Simon, a 20-year-old UF psychology major and African American studies minor, is planning to apply to law school in the Fall. She hopes to become a criminal defense or civil rights attorney.

There’s unimaginable pressure being the only Black person in the room sometimes, she said. But Judge Jackson is a reminder to persevere.

“I had to have a hard conversation with myself that, ‘You know what, a lot of people aren't going to see the value in my life, but that doesn't mean that I shouldn't keep going,’” she said. “That’s a hard reality to have.”

Raised by parents that came of age during the civil rights movement, Nouvelle Gonzalo, a 39-year-old U.S. and international corporate lawyer based in Gainesville, was reminded of a similar maxim.

“That’s something we were always told growing up,” she said. “That ‘You have to remember you are going to need to work twice as hard, you're going to need to put in twice as much work just to get the same opportunities, many times.’”

The U.S. has come a long way since the 1960s and ’70s, though, and Gonzalo said she has worked with plenty of professionals who look at the quality of work rather than skin color or socioeconomic background.

She has learned to walk in her passion for law and pursue it with intensity, refusing to be discouraged, just as Judge Jackson has.

Jackson addressed the country Friday for the first time since her confirmation. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris stood alongside her on the sunny White House South Lawn.

“In my family, it took just one generation to go from segregation to the Supreme Court of the United States,” she said in her speech. “We’ve made it. All of us.”

Contact Carissa at callen@alligator.org or follow her on Twitter @carissaallenn.

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Carissa Allen

Carissa Allen is a third-year journalism and political science double major. She is excited to continue her work on the Metro desk this semester as the East Gainesville Reporter. In her free time, you can find her scuba diving, working out or listening to a podcast.


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