LOCALIZE IT: Story Ideas Around the Jackson Confirmation

After 232 years and 115 other judges, the Supreme Court will have its first black woman trial. The Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson on Thursday by 53 to 47 votes. Three Republicans — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and Mitt Romney of Utah — voted with Democrats to confirm her.

Jackson’s confirmation is an opportunity for state editors to review the diversity at their own local and federal courts. It’s a time not only to assess whether the bank looks like the community it serves, but also to profile a number of lawyers who, while not in the limelight like Jackson, are no less remarkable.

Here are some ideas for local stories in the wake of the confirmation.

FIRST JUST CONTEXT MATERIAL YOU CAN USE

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is the first black female Supreme Court judge and the third black overall. She follows Justice Thurgood Marshall, who joined the court in 1967, and Justice Clarence Thomas, who replaced Marshall in 1991.

President Joe Biden first discussed naming a black woman in court while running for president. Biden said that if a seat opened up and he became president, he would make the historic appointment because the court should “look like the country”. Biden made that statement ahead of South Carolina’s presidential election, the first game in 2020 where a majority of the electorate was black. His win there helped him become the Democratic candidate.

Jackson is the sixth woman to ever serve on the court, and when she sits on the bench this summer following the retirement of Judge Stephen Breyer, four female judges will sit together on the court for the first time.

The first female member of the court was Judge Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981, followed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993. President Barack Obama nominated two women to the court. Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Latina judge, joined the court in 2009. Judge Elena Kagan took office in 2010. President Donald Trump nominated Judge Amy Comey Barrett for the court to replace Ginsburg after her death in 2020.

Ginsburg, a women’s rights icon, was sometimes asked when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court. Her response: “If it’s nine.”

IS THERE A JUDGE JACKSON IN OUR AREA?

Prior to her appointment to the Supreme Court, Jackson was both a federal trial-level judge and a federal appellate court judge. The Biden administration has made a concerted effort to get more black women on the federal bench, and there are currently several dozen black women in federal courts across the country.

Readers may be interested in the makeup of the federal judiciary in your area and the representation of other minority groups, local or national.

The government has an excellent online database of current and historic judges that can be sorted by 17 different race or ethnicity categories, as well as by gender and presidential nomination, among other categories. It can be accessed here:

https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/search/advanced-search

The data may also be limited to your area by selecting the district and circuit courts that oversee the area you are interested in.

WHAT ABOUT THE DIVERSITY OF THE STATE COURT?

Jackson’s confirmation is also a good time to examine or re-examine the diversity in state courts that hear the vast majority of cases nationwide.

States generally have an administrative office for their courts. Those offices can generally provide race and gender statistics to state judges, either promptly or through a freedom of information request.

Of course, the highest court of a state has only a handful of members. That makes it easy enough to quickly find information about the composition of the court. States also often have a Supreme Court or other historical societies dedicated to their highest courts that can provide details over time about judicial firsts or the racial and gender makeup of the court.

The Brennan Center for Justice released a report on the diversity of the state Supreme Court in 2019. It noted that the highest courts of about half of the states had all-white members, and more than a dozen states have never had a black state supreme court. That report, which includes several state-level observations, is here: https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/state-supreme-court-diversity

The US Census can be a good tool to compare the diversity of the judiciary or Supreme Court to the state population as a whole. State-level data for the 2020 census can be found here: https://www.census.gov/library/stories/state-by-state.html

QUESTIONS TO ASK

— Does the state have some large population that is never represented in the supreme court or generally underrepresented in the judiciary?

— What percentage of the judges of the state courts or the state supreme court are members of minority groups? How does this relate to the state population in general?

– If at all, what would have to change in the composition of the state’s judiciary or supreme court to make it more similar to the population it serves? Is anyone working for that change?

PROFILE POTENTIAL

Jackson may be the first black female Supreme Court justice, but both state and federal courts have other black women in prominent positions, as well as other justices who are historic firsts.

Even if your state does not currently have a particularly diverse judiciary or supreme court, there may be one or more historic firsts worthy of attention, including the first black female judge or justice. For example, the seven-member Pennsylvania Supreme Court is currently all white. But it was also the first state to have a black female Supreme Court judge. Juanita Kidd Stout joined Pennsylvania’s highest court in 1988. She passed away in 1998. Again, state court historical societies are a good place for guidance.

WHO’S NEXT?

Jackson’s confirmation could also spark talks about other Supreme Court firsts yet to be won. For example, the court must still have an openly gay justice system, a Muslim justice system or an Asian or Indian justice system. The men and women who could be those firsts could now be living in your community. Good luck.

Jessica Gresko covers the US Supreme Court for The Associated Press. Localize It is an occasional feature produced by The Associated Press for use by its customers. Questions can be directed to Ted Anthony at tanthony@ap.org

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