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July 29, 2022 Feature Article

Another Step to a More Perfect Union

For the first time in the Court's 233 year history, an African American woman was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Michelle Behnke
Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the
United States

Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

(Jackson was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Joe Biden on February 25, 2022. She was confirmed by the United States Senate on April 7, 2022, and sworn into office on June 30, 2022). Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The U.S. Supreme Court has been in the news a great deal this term with significant decisions on issues from gun regulation to women's reproductive rights, but on June 30, 2022, the Court was in the news for a very different reason.  For the first time in the Court's 233 year history, an African American woman was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

To put this milestone into perspective, consider that the U. S. Supreme Court was established by Article Three of the United States Constitution and the Judiciary Act of 1789, which provided the detailed organization of a federal judiciary.  Initially, the Supreme Court was to be composed of a chief justice and five associate justices.  Over time, with the growth of the nation's boundaries the size of the court grew.  In 1807 the Court was comprised of seven justices.  In 1837, the Court grew to nine justices and in 1863 the number grew to ten.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to expand the court in 1937. His proposal envisioned the appointment of one additional justice for each incumbent justice who reached the age of 70 years and 6 months and refused retirement, up to a maximum bench of 15 justices. The proposal was said to be a way to ease the burden of the docket on elderly judges, but the actual purpose was widely understood to be an effort to "pack" the court.

Regardless of the size of the Supreme Court, from its inception until 1967, the Supreme Court was made up entirely of men and there was no racial or ethnic diversity.  Then in 1967, President Kennedy nominated Justice Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court.  It was not until 1981 that a woman joined the Supreme Court with the nomination and confirmation of Justice Sandra Day O'Conner.  The diversity path of the Supreme Court remained linear.  Upon Justice Marshall's retirement, Justice Clarence Thomas was nominated to fill the vacancy created by Justice Marshall’s departure.  However, the diversity path took an exponential turn in 1993, when Justice O'Connor was joined on the Supreme Court by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg giving the Court two women justices for the first time in its history.  The addition of Justice Ginsburg changed the demographics of the Court making it 23% women despite the fact that women made up fifty percent of the overall population.  In 2009, Justice Sonia Sotomayor became the third woman Justice, the first woman of color, and the first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court.  Another hurdle was crossed with the addition of Justice Elena Kagan in 2010 when the Court was comprised of three women sitting at the same time.    With the passing of Justice Ginsberg and the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett the Court retained its one-third gender diversity.

However, on June 20, 2022, the Court crossed a new milestone with the addition of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. She became the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court giving the Supreme Court two African American Justices and a Hispanic Justice all sitting at the same time.  Justice Jackson also became the first former federal defender to serve on the Supreme Court. Providing some practice diversity too.

We often say that representation matters.  While the Supreme Court is not a representative branch of government, the Court holds the power of judicial review, the ability to invalidate statutes for violating a provision of the Constitution and providing checks and balances for other branches of our government.  The diversity of the Court is important not just because it is important to see someone that looks like you in places where decisions are made.  It is the fact that someone with different experiences and perspectives is among the decision makers sharing that experience and perspective to broaden the view of the entire decision making body.   I for one let out a shout of elation as I watched Justice Jackson take her oath of office.  For me it was a sign of our collective efforts to make this a more perfect union.    

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