The Burdens Of Being A ‘First’: Reflections On Justice Jackson’s Investiture Ceremony
On September 30th, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was formally elevated to the highest court in the land. As a young attorney of color, I am ecstatic to celebrate the first Black woman on the Court; a just judiciary is one that reflects the diversity of the people whose rights they are charged with protecting. My future children will see Justice Jackson’s face in their textbooks and maybe imagine themselves holding her proverbial gavel. As an American, I am grateful to have a person with such excellent credentials and a unique perspective on the bench.
At the same time, I wonder how Justice Jackson feels upon her historic investiture ceremony. Entering a traditionally white-male space as a woman of color can be both empowering and deeply unsettling. In some ways, the Supreme Court is just another workplace, albeit a powerful one. Starting a new job or new school as the only — or one of the only — women of color comes with psychological baggage. There can be fears of isolation or tokenization, an anxiety to perform under glaringly heightened scrutiny, or a sense of profound obligation to be a role model for others. In truth, trailblazers often must bear the growing pains of progress.
As the first woman justice on the Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor felt these burdens acutely soon after her 1981 confirmation. In a tellingly thoughtless gesture, Chief Justice Burger sent O’Connor an academic paper entitled “The Solo Woman in a Professional Peer Group” during her second month on the bench. The paper concluded that because a woman’s presence “is likely to undermine the productivity, satisfaction, and sense of accomplishment of her male peers,” a “solo woman” in an all-male professional setting should be willing to accept a more passive role. Justice O’Connor, thankfully, did not adhere to those recommendations, but the weight of these types of indignities must have felt suffocating. In her journal, O’Connor wrote that she felt “a little lonely and a little lost” in those early days as the only woman on the bench. She was relieved when President Bill Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the bench, at the time saying she was “grateful to have company.”
Even as Justice Jackson joins an increasingly diversifying court, women justices still face an uphill battle to have their voices heard. O’Connor recalled feeling ‘put down’ during her first oral argument after the presenting male advocate dismissively interrupted her first question — and she would not be the first woman justice to be frequently interrupted during oral argument. According to a 2017 study, male justices interrupt the women justices approximately three times as often as they interrupt each other during oral arguments. As more women have joined the bench, the problem has only intensified. In 1990, 35.7% of all interruptions were directed at Justice O’Connor; in 2002, 45.3% were directed at Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg; in 2015, 65.9% of all interruptions on the court were directed at Justices Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
Any anxiety Justice Jackson might feel in anticipation of her first oral argument is supported by hard data: To be a woman is, in fact, to be interrupted. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has also openly discussed the unique fears and burdens she faced as the first Latina justice on the Court. In an interview with NPR, she explained the special responsibility she feels to prove herself as the “first of a group that has been perceived as being incapable of doing whatever it is that [she’d] had the benefit of becoming a part of.” Sotomayor attributed the heightened scrutiny she faced during her confirmation process to some people’s belief that, because affirmative action may have “opened the door” for her success, her various academic and professional achievements were somehow less valuable. “They forget” she said, “that you don’t judge a person by who opens the door; you judge them by what they did when they went through the door.”
Similarly, Republicans immediately criticized President Biden’s promise to elevate a Black woman to the Court, claiming such a nominee would be an unqualified affirmative action appointment — all before Jackson’s name was even announced. At the time, Black women in the legal profession braced themselves for the yet-to-be-named nominee to be subjected to excessive scrutiny.
Indeed, Justice Jackson demonstrated tremendous grace, patience, and bravery in the face of these kinds of attacks during her confirmation hearings. Jackson maintained her composure with a kind of quiet brilliance in response to ludicrous questions from Republican lawmakers; a talent likely honed over a lifetime of experience enduring back-handed compliments and disrespectful microaggressions. Not only did her performance prove she has the judicial temperament for the bench, but she also clearly understands and is prepared for the unique challenges she will face ahead. She shouldn’t have to be, but she is.
During her hearing, Justice Jackson also acknowledged the magnitude of her own nomination: “I am here,” she said, “standing on the shoulders of generations of Americans who never had anything close to this kind of opportunity.” As a woman of color who grew up in primarily white spaces, I am frankly in awe of women like her. These “firsts” in rigid patriarchal institutions — who take on the extra mental energy, inner strength, and patience required for an already demanding job — are emblematic of the storied legacy of progress in this country.
After nearly two centuries, we can never again say there has never been a Black woman on the Supreme Court, and that is monumental. Jackson’s the first, but Alliance for Justice will continue to build a pipeline to ensure that she won’t be the last. Whatever intersectional challenges Justice Jackson will face as the first Black woman to sit on the most powerful court in the country, we must wholeheartedly celebrate her investiture ceremony as a joyous milestone in the right direction.
Jeevna Sheth is a Dorot Fellow at Alliance for Justice.