Despite landmark Supreme Court appointment, black women justices rarely reach federal level
In 1966, the first black woman to serve on the federal bench began her service at the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
The federal bench has been around for 233 years, but since Constance Baker Motley made history 56 years ago, only about 70 other black female judges have scored similar career milestones.
For context, 3,843 people have served as federal Article III judges of the nation’s 91 district courts, 13 appeals courts and the Supreme Court, according to a biographical database maintained by the Federal Judicial Center, the agency US Federal Courts Education and Research Center.
It shows that less than 2% of all federal judges are black women, including monoracial, Hispanic, Afro-Latina and multiracial women.
As President Joe Biden continues to deliver on his commitment to bolster the representation of women and minorities in federal courts — most recently with his historic nomination of U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown-Jackson for a seat on the nation’s highest court — experts agree there is still room for improvement.
Senior United States District Court Judge Petrese B. Tucker is one of the few pioneers. The Philadelphia native joined the US Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 2000 after President Bill Clinton was nominated.
Tucker served as Chief Justice from 2013 to 2017 as the first woman to hold the Eastern District office. She was also the first black female judge in the Eastern District.
“The more diverse the perspective, the easier it is to come to a fair conclusion,” Tucker said. “Diversity is important.”
She said she doesn’t understand why the number of federally qualified black women has remained low.
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But, while she marked important firsts in her career, and although she felt welcomed by her colleagues when she joined the federal bench, Tucker notes that historically, black women have been the last to be considered for “almost everything”.
“It just seems consistent across the bench, throughout certain jobs,” said Tucker, who took senior status on June 1 last year. “I don’t understand, if we have the qualifications, why we are the last group to be considered.”
The question goes beyond the legal framework. In the corporate world, LeanIn.org and McKinsey and Company’s annual Women in the Workplace study from 2015 found that black women had a harder time moving up the corporate ladder.
For every 100 white men promoted, 58 black women have the opportunity to advance, according to the study. He also revealed that black women make up about 1.5% of vice president and C-suite positions in the country, despite making up 7.4% of the population.
Back on the bench, black women make up 5% of all active district and circuit judges and just 3% of all sitting judges, the Center for American Progress reported.
Diversity has also lagged in lower courts, including in Bucks County.
To date, the only black judge to sit on the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas is Senior Judge Clyde Waite. He was elected in 2003 and retained for another decade in 2013. He is now a senior judge despite his official retirement.
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The Yale Law School graduate was also the first Bucks person of color elected to countywide office. Waite says there are political and social aspects to consider before someone becomes part of the judiciary.
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“It’s a combination of political activity and a matter of talent, ability, affiliation and things of that nature that have little to do with actual qualifications,” said Waite, who has retired in 2014.
“On the Court of Common Pleas, you get your position through elections, and on the federal bench, that’s where affiliations and your ability to navigate the social ladder to reach decision makers may be as important as your skill as a judge,” Waite said.
Bucks has yet to see a black woman on his common pleas court.
Family lawyer Tiffany Thomas-Smith, who runs the Newtown-based Thomas-Smith firm, nearly broke the mold – and the glass ceiling – when she showed up for an open seat on the bench against the judge Stephen Corr last year.
Thomas-Smith, who has expressed interest in running again when the opportunity arises, said the makeup of the Bucks County court somewhat mirrors that of the Federal Court bench.
Court of Common Pleas Judge Diane Gibbons plans to step down in 2022, leaving just two women on the bench. And once Judge Waite walks away, the diversity of the Bucks’ court will be further reduced.
“It means there will literally be no representation of people of color on the bench here at Bucks,” Thomas-Smith, a 20-year-old practicing lawyer, said of Waite’s eventual departure. “It’s certainly interesting to me, and it was clearly an aspect of the campaign when I was running.”
Studies have shown that diversity within the bench can have a positive impact both on and off the bench.
“Representation is really important, and when people see people who look like them, they’re convinced they can do the same thing,” Tucker said.
Speaking of the value of different perspectives reflected on the court, Laura E. Little, a professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, referenced a quote from Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. She worked as a legal assistant for Rehnquist in 1986.
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“He said judges don’t come to court and their judicial responsibilities as a tabula rasa – that is, a blank slate; if they did, they would be less qualified, right? Few said.
“There’s also knowledge that goes with it, in terms of what your life experience has given you, like cultural knowledge,” Little added. “If someone had a very privileged life, in an ivory tower, only attending elite schools, there may be certain types of information that never reached them, and that could be very important. to determine the right thing to do with a particular case.
Brown-Jackson’s nomination on February 25 to become the 16th associate justice to serve on the United States Supreme Court is a first for black women.
Some, including Tucker, say it’s “time.”
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Thomas-Smith says Brown-Jackson’s landmark nomination should be based on his credentials rather than just the color of his skin.
“Should I say, ‘Is it time there was an African American woman on the bench?'” Thomas-Smith said. “I think the answer to that is it’s not about time, it’s about qualifications, and if you have the qualifications then now is the time.”