For the first time in its history, a Black woman holds a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in Thursday as the 116th justice of the nation’s highest court. The ceremony came nearly three months after the Senate confirmed the 51-year-old in April. The Miami-raised judge replaces Justice Stephen Breyer, who announced his retirement at the beginning of the year.
Standing before other justices in a navy blue dress, Jackson smiled as she recited the constitutional and judicial oaths.
The historic moment follows a month of controversial rulings from the majority conservative court. Those range from a decision restricting gun legislation, to one allowing a football coach at a public high school to pray at the field. Last Friday, the court overturned federal abortion rights by striking down nearly 50 years of precedent established by Roe v. Wade, which protected a woman’s right to choose.
Although the recent rulings have brought forth waves of public protest and outcry, Jackson’s swearing in ushers a moment of celebration.
For three Black female students at Stetson Law School in Gulfport, the moment marks a long overdue step toward justice in America’s legal system, where people of color have been underrepresented at the bench and overrepresented in prisons.
“It’s 2022 and I still am often the only Black woman in the (court) room, still fighting every day to be seen and valued,” said Zenea Johnson, a part-time student at Stetson. “Now, we have someone to look up to in KBJ. Your heart hurts, but you’re excited because it gives you hope.”
Johnson, 26, grew up in a poor neighborhood in Orlando. She said she became interested in studying law around the height of the Trayvon Martin case. Martin, a Black Florida teenager, was followed, shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, in February 2012. Zimmerman was charged with murder but acquitted on all charges.
Johnson said personal experience with incarcerated family members also fueled her desire to pursue law.
“I saw the criminal justice system fail people, especially Black people and people living in poverty,” Johnson said. “My goal and my dream is actually to be a judge.”
She said having Jackson as an example to look up to further fuels her desire.
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Logan Jackson (of no relation to Justice Jackson), echoed Johnson.
“It’s just surreal,” said the third-year law student. “To see a Black woman that looks like me, that has a hairstyle like me, who is able to articulate the needs and concerns of minority people in this country that are oftentimes lost in the interpretation of the law is an inspiration.”
Logan Jackson, 23, is the president of the Black Law Students Association at Stetson. She said she became interested in law as a high school student in Missouri, where she began engaging in social activism.
“That’s when I really started to learn what it means to be Black in America,” Jackson said. “I lived about 10 minutes away from where Michael Brown was shot. It was eye opening to see what was happening in my own community.”
Brown — like Trayvon Martin — was a Black teen. He was shot and killed in August 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, while he was unarmed.
Logan Jackson said that the legal field is still a predominantly white space. A report on diversity from the National Association for Law Placement, which analyzes the legal field, found that women of color accounted for only 4% of partners at law firms in 2021. Black and Latina women each represented less than 1% of all partners, the report found.
“I hold near and dear my identity and my values, but there’s still so much ground to cover,” Logan Jackson said. “I’m grateful to be in law school at a time when something like (KBJ’s swearing in) is happening.”
Andrea Waters, a second-year law student, said she hopes having a Black woman sit on the Supreme Court gives young Black girls a role model to emulate.
“Growing up, I didn’t really see a lot of attorneys who were people of color,” Waters said. “Young Black girls are now going to see themselves represented on the highest court of the country. It’s amazing.”
Despite a lack of representation, Waters said she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a lawyer. She said Justice Jackson’s confirmation only further affirms her sense of belonging.
“It makes me that much more sure of the path I’m on,” Waters said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the total number of justices who have served on the Supreme Court.