U.S. President Joe Biden has nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. Jackson will be the first Black woman to serve in the court’s 233-year history if confirmed. She will replace retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer who plans to leave by the end of June.
“For too long, our government, our court hasn’t looked like America,” Biden said on Friday. “I believe it’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talent and greatness of our nation.”
Biden had said during a press conference in Delaware in June 2020 that he hoped to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court if given the opportunity. But years before Biden promised to nominate a Black woman to the top court while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan in 1980 pledged to nominate the first woman ever to have a seat on the bench.
In fact, in 1981, Reagan recognised for the first time a Black woman on a Supreme Court shortlist. Judge Amalya Lyle Kearse, a Black woman from New Jersey, could have been the Supreme Court’s first Black female justice had Reagan not chosen Sandra Day O’Connor, a white woman, in the end.
Kearse became the first Black woman to appear on a presidential shortlist for a high court vacancy that year. She appeared on the shortlist three more times — in 1987, 1991, and 1994. Forbes writes that “she would’ve been the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court had Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton chosen her from a small pool of possible nominees.”
Now 84, Kearse is a senior judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan. She was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 at a time when Carter decided to have more Blacks and women on the federal bench. Kearse has been at the Second Circuit since. While at the Second Circuit in 1979, she was the first woman judge and only the second Black judge in the court’s history. (Thurgood Marshall, who would be on the U.S. Supreme Court, was the first).
At 42, she was also one of the youngest to sit on the court. It was two years after being appointed to the Second Circuit that Kearse appeared on Reagan’s Supreme Court shortlist when he promised to nominate the first woman ever to have a seat on the bench. He eventually chose white woman O’Connor in that historic appointment.
Then in 1987, Kearse was again considered a top contender for the seat when it was vacated by Justice Lewis Powell. However, Reagan nominated Robert Bork, a White man. When Bork’s candidacy was rejected by the Senate, Reagan went for Anthony Kennedy, another White man.
Kearse almost made it in 1991 when Clarence Thomas, whom Bush had nominated, was accused of sexual harassment. Analysts asked Bush to nominate Kearse and called for Thomas, a Black man, to step aside but Thomas got confirmed.
In 1994, Kearse emerged on Clinton’s Supreme Court shortlist for the seat vacated by Justice Harry Blackmun but Clinton chose Breyer, who is now retiring.
Indeed, Kearse was a Supreme Court favorite who received support from both Republicans and Democrats but that didn’t do much to get her to the Supreme Court as there was “not an intentional effort,” Leslie Davis, CEO of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, told Forbes.
Kearse was born June 11, 1937, in Vauxhall, New Jersey. Her father was postmaster and her mother practiced medicine before becoming an antipoverty official. Kearse graduated near the top of her class from the University of Michigan Law School in 1962 and later became the first Black female partner in a major Wall Street firm after joining New York-based Hughes, Hubbard & Reed.
She said in an interview that it was while at Wellesley College in the 1950s majoring in philosophy that she decided she wanted to be a litigator. “I can trace that back to, a course in international law at Wellesley. There was a moot court, and I found that very enjoyable,” she was quoted by The New York Times in 1979.
Kearse is also a talented bridge player who has authored, edited and translated several books and articles about the game. She has won seven American Bridge Association championships and five North American Bridge championships.
Kearse is among a list of other women who never made it to the highest court in the country as stated by law professors Hannah Brenner Johnson and Renee Knake Jefferson in their book “Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court”. They argue that women were in some instances only included on the Supreme Court list “so that a president could make it look like he actually considered a woman.”