Yesterday, April 7th, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States, making her the first Black woman to serve as a justice on the nation’s highest court. Building off the confirmation of Justice Brown Jackson, we took a Deep Dive into the life and legacy of Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to serve on the federal judiciary.
Constance Baker Motley was a civil rights lawyer, NY state politician, and the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary. Before finishing law school at Columbia University in 1945, Motley served as a law clerk in the office of Thurgood Marshall, the well known civil rights leader who was the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.
In 1946, Motley joined the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund where she served as a civil rights lawyer for nearly two decades. She represented well known civil rights leaders like MLK and Medgar Evans whose constitutional rights were often under siege by the American government during that time. She also represented those who took part in civil rights activism such as the Freedom Fighters and the Birmingham Children Marchers. She was considered a key legal and political strategist of the movement.
In 1950, Motley was the legal mind behind the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark case that ended school segregation in the U.S. in the mid 20th century. The complaint in Brown v. BOE (1954) argued that under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, racial separation under the guise of “separate but equal,” was in-fact unequal therefore unconstitutional. This historical case set the legal stage for desegregation in the U.S.
In 1964, Motley became the first Black woman elected to the NY State Senate, and she eventually became the first Black woman elected to serve as Borough President of Manhattan. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to a seat on theUnited States District Court for the Southern District of New York, making her the first Black woman to be appointed to the federal bench.
Today, we took a deep dive into her life and legacy with Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Professor Law and History at Harvard University. She’s author of Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality, “A must-read for anyone who dares to believe that equal justice under the law is possible and is in search of a model for how to make it a reality,” said Professor Anita Hill. Anita Hill is the legal scholar and professor who captivated the American public in 1991 during her testimony before the Senate judiciary committee in the vetting process for then-nominee Clarence Thomas. Thomas is the only other African American to sit on the Supreme Court; he was appointed by George H. W. Bush to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall. He’s married to Virginia Thomas who sent a great deal of text messages begging former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to push to overturn the fairly drawn results of the 2020 presidential election.
We also spoke with President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), Janai Nelson, about the legacy Motley left and the pivotal cases she worked on during her time there.
Simone Yhap, the immediate past president of the National Chair of the National Black Law Students Association also joined us. Yhap spoke to us about the obstacles Black law students continue to face, citing a recent incident from law student Brooklyn Crockton. Crockton posted a TikTok back in March about what happened when she arrived at court to serve as a Rule 9 attorney representing an indigent client. She says a court officer blocked her entry into the courtroom and asked if she was the defendant on trial. Simone speaks to this incident with her own story of racial discrimination during law school and reflects on how the historical confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson will inspirethe next generation of U.S. attorneys.
Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson gestures as she speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, March 22, 2022
This content was originally published here.