A Black woman has never served on the U.S. Supreme Court, but there is no shortage of well-qualified individuals available to break that shameful barrier. This was made clear enough last week with the announcement that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is retiring and President Joe Biden is keeping his campaign promise to appoint a Black woman to the nation’s highest court. Speculation quickly turned to a handful of judges who have served with distinction, including, perhaps most prominently, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former clerk to Justice Breyer who now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Her resume is impeccable, as are the resumes of at least a half-dozen others, including Leondra Kruger of the California Supreme Court and Minnesota U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina Wright.
But when it comes to this historic opportunity to right a longstanding wrong, one of the possible nominees stands out for the leadership she’s shown in the cause of civil rights. She has been one of this nation’s most important voices for voting rights. She has taught a generation of law students in Maryland, is a deeply respected advocate for Baltimore City and understands issues facing the nation’s disenfranchised. And though she was born and raised in New York City, she has long lived in the Baltimore area, and continues to do so, despite her national prominence.
That person is Sherrilyn Ifill, outgoing head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and we urge President Biden to fill his promise to nominate someone of “extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity” by submitting her name. Just as Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall, the former chief counsel to the NAACP, became the first Black man to be nominated to the Supreme Court in 1967, Ms. Ifill would be the ideal to break a similar barrier in 2022.
Certain Republicans in Congress and the right-wing media have already attempted to characterize Mr. Biden’s approach to the nomination as some sort of unseemly new politicization of the court, ignoring how past presidents have made similar promises of diversity. That list includes Ronald Reagan and, most recently, Donald Trump, who pledged to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat with a woman, which he did with Amy Coney Barrett. Or is it race that upsets these critics so? If so, they ought to consider how past presidents stuck exclusively with white men from 1789 until Mr. Marshall’s belated arrival 55 years ago.
Not all Republicans find fault with the effort to diversify the court. In an interview over the weekend with CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, endorsed South Carolina U.S. District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs, a Black woman, as a nominee and said he was in “the camp of making sure the court and other institutions look like America.” In fact, he said that was a goal of the GOP, “to recruit women and people of color to make the party look more like America.”
Still, should Ms. Ifill become the nominee, you can bet many conservatives will attempt to dismiss her as firebrand, a vocal special interest advocate lacking in judicial experience. But not having served on the bench would put the lawyer in good company among justices, including William Rehnquist, Earl Warren and William O. Douglas, none of whom were judges prior to their joining the U.S. Supreme Court. Choosing an appellate judge might be a safe pick, sure, but President Biden should understand this is not the moment for half-heartedness.
One of the more glaring failures of the Biden administration to date has been its inability to make progress on voting rights, even as states with checkered histories in race relations seek to limit ballot access. Republicans have frequently mischaracterized efforts to protect the voting franchise as a federal “takeover” of elections, which it is not. Ms. Ifill understands this as well as anyone, and we would look forward to the moment when certain Senate Judiciary Committee members — Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas come to mind — try to peddle their specious arguments on the nominee. That kind of gaslighting may fly on Fox News, but it wouldn’t get them a passing grade in Professor Ifill’s University of Maryland School of Law class.
Ms. Ifill has spent a career as a civil rights advocate and is highly qualified for this unique moment. Her addition to the court can’t change the balance of power. Conservatives hold a 6-3 majority now. That will no doubt continue no matter whom the president nominates and the U.S. Senate confirms. But she can make the argument for voting rights that Americans need to hear right now. And in so doing, help all of us better understand the constitutional values the nation so desperately needs to rediscover and reaffirm.
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