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Beyond Historic Firsts: Confirming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and Empowering Women

By Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke and Glynda Carr

As the nation and our collective communities applauded the historic nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the first Black woman nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, we now watch with bated breath as the Senate deliberates to confirm Judge Jackson.

With her confirmation, Judge Jackson breaks barriers for people of color, and for women of color.

Since 2016, the number of women have outnumbered men in law school, and today 20 percent of first-year law students are women or color. Women occupy the deanships at half of our top ten law schools – including Jenny Martinez, who also clerked for Justice Breyer, as dean of Stanford Law School.

However, in the greater legal profession, women are underrepresented in law firm partnerships (23 percent), and women of color only represent 9 percent of all attorneys at law firms and 3 percent of equity partners.

One hundred years since the passage of the 19th Amendment and 50 years since the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, more needs to be done. We need to get beyond historic firsts.

In the 232 year history of the U.S. Supreme Court, only five women have served, of which three are on the Court today, and only one is a woman of color. Women who serve on the U.S. District and U.S. Court of the Appeals represent 35 percent of the bench, while the subset of women of color represent 12 percent of our federal judiciary.

Regardless of President Biden’s campaign promise, there is no better nominee than Judge Jackson. In fact, our forty-fourth president strongly considered then U.S. District Court Judge Jackson, along with Appellate Judges Sri Srinivasan and Merrick Garland, who ultimately was nominated.

Judge Jackson has a remarkable career that defies the stereotypes that seek to restrain her exceptional ascent. She is the daughter of teachers; a graduate of Harvard College and later Harvard Law School; a clerk for Justice Stephen Breyer, whose seat she is nominated to fill on the Supreme Court; a former public defender; a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and a federal judge for over the last decade on the U.S. District Court and now on the U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia.

Judge Jackson’s experience and career is what we expect from all our Supreme Court nominees. Yet the reality is that very few Justices who served on our nation’s highest court have that background. And somehow, there are still arguments that her nomination boils down purely to her race and gender.

This is not new to us. Too often are well-qualified women of color overlooked for leadership positions despite our achievements. And too often are these characteristics seen as weaknesses, rather than strengths.

Over the past decade, there is a greater spotlight on the exceptional work that women of color have achieved, particularly in the political sphere to organize, lead, and win votes and campaigns. This recognition is important, but it is even more important for our views and concerns to be realized through representation.

Representation is not a buzzword, but a lived experience for us. When leaders in our country look like us, they tell our story. What was once a dream, becomes a tangible reality for our children, and ourselves. Most importantly, representation means that our priorities, our concerns and our votes have meaning and power.

Diversity in racial and gender background in leadership is critical to the well-being of a democracy. There are complexities and nuances that can only be understood through life experiences. The lens that women of color bring – particularly as complex issues surrounding race are deliberated – is invaluable to the creation, preservation and upholding of laws in our nation.

As we continue to celebrate Judge Jackson’s achievements today, and urge the Senate to quickly confirm her, we also call on those in power to continue to create a pipeline to elevate other women of color.

Judge Jackson’s story is a chapter for the history books. We hope that one day, the ascension of a woman of color to positions of power is no longer historic, but the norm.

We all benefit from it.

Madalene Mielke is president & CEO of Asian Pacific American Institute of Congressional Studies.

Glynda Carr is president & CEO of Higher Heights.

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