The news University of Miami professor Zanita Fenton had been waiting for came via a text message from her five former Harvard Law roommates: In a 53-47 vote, the U.S. Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, making the 51-year-old the first Black woman to be elevated to the nation’s highest bench.
Fenton, who was in the middle of lecturing to her Constitutional Law class, seized upon the moment, pausing her lesson to explain to her students the historical significance of Jackson’s confirmation.
“I first noted the small number of individuals who have served on our nation’s highest court across its entire history,” Fenton recalled. “I then added that, in the context of the history of the United States, Constitutional and otherwise, the confirmation of an African American woman to the Supreme Court has tremendous significance.”
Calling Jackson an “inspiration and role model for all,” Fenton said she is extraordinarily proud of her fellow Harvard Law alumna but cautioned that barriers to the success of women and Black men in all aspects of society remain.
“Even in the face of challenge and disparagement, Justice Jackson handled her confirmation with intelligence and grace,” Fenton said. “I can only imagine some of the challenges she has experienced along her career path as I have experienced many of my own. She is absolutely brilliant to overcome barriers she confronted in her career while simultaneously accomplishing so much.”
A federal appellate judge, Jackson grew up in Miami and is the daughter of University of Miami School of Law alumnus Johnny Brown. She once lived on the Coral Gables Campus, often sitting next to her father at the kitchen table in their on-campus apartment, doodling with her crayons as he studied.
Her appointment Thursday fulfills a campaign promise President Joe Biden made to name the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. It also marks the first time that a former public defender will serve on the high court.
When Jackson replaces retiring associate justice Stephen Breyer, whose term ends this summer, four women will simultaneously serve on the Supreme Court for the first time in its 233-year history.
“Having diverse voices around a table always adds value,” said Hilarie Bass, a University trustee and Miami Law alumna who founded the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion, an entity that works with the senior management of companies, law firms, and institutions around the world to identify and create effective strategies to retain women and elevate them to senior management roles.
“After hundreds of years of an all-male Supreme Court, we are finally at a point where we will have four women serving at the same time,” Bass said. “The fact that the court will also have two Blacks and one Hispanic is also an important aspect of bringing diversity to the conversation.”
For professor of political science Louise K. Davidson-Schmich, Jackson’s appointment reminds her of a comment once made by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2015, when she spoke at Georgetown University about women’s equality.
“She said, ‘People ask me sometimes, when—when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine,’ ” Davidson-Schmich recalled.
“We can see worldwide that once glass ceilings get shattered, it’s rare to go backwards to all-male courts or cabinets in the executive branch. So, I expect a range of diverse appointments in the decades to come,” added Davidson-Schmich, asserting that Jackson’s appointment pushes the U.S. above the global average of women holding about 19 percent of the judgeships in high courts, a statistic she gleaned from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The Senate confirmed Jackson by a narrow margin, with three Republican senators— Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Mitt Romney of Utah—breaking ranks and joining Democrats to appoint her.
But while her appointment brings the nation closer to having a judiciary that, in the words of Biden, looks like America, “to think that having Justice Jackson on the Supreme Court will really make a difference is, in my opinion, wishful thinking,” said Donald Spivey, a distinguished professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences and special advisor to President Julio Frenk on racial justice.
“We will find that her decisions will look very much like those of retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, for whom she clerked,” Spivey explained. “Judge Jackson will tell you, as Thurgood Marshall did many times before, that she or he is not the first brilliant Black person qualified to sit on this nation’s highest court. If the Supreme Court is to be reflective of the nation, we must increase the number of justices on the court. We need more Black women, more women in general—a more ethnically, educationally, and economically diverse judiciary. Unfortunately, for many in this nation, diversity does not count. It should count as much as where you earned your degree and what you have published. Instead, we are in a nation that is largely delusional.”
Spivey pointed out that he is not advocating for abandoning what is good about the nation. “I am saying that, as Abraham Lincoln said, history is not history unless it is the truth,” he explained. “The history of America is full of acts of violence, slavery, rape, the taking of lands. These facts should be acknowledged. Only then can the nation hope to put in place a solid foundation from which we can move forward. Until then, we put too much hope into a single act of correctness, such as appointing Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court.”