People For the American Way

For Justice in Our Courts, We Need Black Judges

News and Analysis
For Justice in Our Courts, We Need Black Judges
Photo: Library of Congress

It hasn’t yet been a full month since he took office, but President Joe Biden has made no secret of his plans to restore fairness and balance to our courts.

When Biden’s incoming counsel asked Senate Democrats to send their recommendations for judicial nominees in late December, the incoming president specified his preference for civil rights lawyers, legal aid attorneys and public defenders whose experiences “have been historically underrepresented on the federal bench … and those who represent Americans in all walks of life.”

Especially after four years of Donald Trump’s court-packing, we are encouraged by the president’s commitment to a balanced federal judiciary. Fairness and impartiality are essential to promoting equal justice under the law, and we believe that confirming judges from different races, backgrounds and walks of life will result in outcomes that make our country more equitable for all of us.

Black representation in our courts, in particular, can create a more equitable institution for all of us. In addition to creating a more racially diverse panel of jurists, Black representation in our courts also means diversity in people’s backgrounds, perspectives and lived experiences – all of which help secure judicial outcomes that advance equal justice under the law. Over the last century, Black federal judges have secured and protected many of our civil rights and liberties, both before and during their time on the bench:

  • As a civil rights attorney and the founder of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Thurgood Marshall argued – and won – Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court. After a few years on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals,  Marshall became the first Black Supreme Court justice in 1967. There, he continued his pursuit of justice for the next three decades, advancing affirmative action, abolishing the death penalty (in a decision that was later overturned), and securing abortion as a constitutional right.
  • Spottswood Robinson, another civil rights attorney with the NAACP LDF, fought segregation alongside Marshall in Brown v. Board. Robinson was also involved in other cases that challenged segregation in public trains and buses. In 1964, Robinson became the first Black judge to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and later, the first Black chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals. Robinson received an honorary doctorate from New York Law School for defending “true equality under the law for all Americans.”
  • While Constance Baker Motley was a law clerk for Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP LDF, she drafted the original legal brief in Brown v. Board. As a civil rights lawyer for the LDF, Motley became the first Black woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court. She fought before the Court successfully against segregation in schools, buses, and lunch counters during her legal career. In 1966, she became the first Black woman to be appointed to a federal judgeship. Of her appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, she said, ““As the first Black and first woman, I am proving in everything I do that Blacks and women are as capable as anyone.”
  • Eight years after Baker Motley’s service on the Southern District of New York ended, Deborah Batts was confirmed to another seat on the same court. Judge Batts’ appointment in 1994 made her the first openly LGBTQ Black member of the federal judiciary. She oversaw many several prominent civil rights cases, including the case and eventual exoneration of the Central Park Five, who were wrongfully convicted of assaulting a young white woman in 1989. Upon her death in 2020, another gay federal judge credited Batts as an inspiration, saying that she “literally broke down the closet door and allowed the rest of us to walk through it.”

Among many others, each of these judges secured and protected civil rights during their careers. And many Black federal judges today continue their legacies through their own decisions. The judges listed below have demonstrated their impartiality and commitment to protecting the rights of all people, not just the powerful – two essential characteristics that we look forward to seeing in President Biden’s nominees:

  • Victor Allen Bolden also served as a civil rights attorney for the NAACP LDF (and the ACLU) before his tenure on the federal bench. Judge Bolden, who was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in 2014, cited Marshall as among his legal heroes, calling Brown v. Board “the most important legal decision in the history of law,” and described his lifelong legal aspirations as rooted in “[helping] people obtain justice.”
  • Ketanji Brown Jackson, who has served on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia since 2013, credits Motley as an “invisible leader” in the civil rights movement and an inspiration for her own career. In her 2019 decision in the House Judiciary Committee’s case against Don McGahn, Judge Jackson ruled that McGahn must testify about his knowledge of Russian interference in the 2016 election, stressing that “presidents are not kings” and that “no one is above the law.”
  • Carlton Reeves began his legal career in the early 1990s as a lawyer for the Mississippi Supreme Court. In 2010, he became the second Black man to serve as a federal judge in the state when he was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for its Southern District. In his rulings and decisions, Judge Reeves has written eloquently about the meaning of justice in decisions related to criminal justice for racist killings, accountability for police violence, and marriage equality.

For too long, our courts have favored the interests of the wealthy, powerful and privileged at the expense of the rest of us. The American people urgently need racially diverse, fair-minded judges to protect and defend our rights, particularly as challenges to our right to the ballot are proliferating, as anti-Black police violence continues unchecked, and as far-right extremists threaten our democracy. That includes Black judges and justices on the court bench.

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