Obama Should Appoint First Black Woman for Supreme Court, Jurists Say

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WASHINGTON (NNPA) – President Barack Obama needs only to turn over in his bed to be reminded of all the Black women who are powerfully qualified to be U.S. Supreme Court justices. If First Lady Michelle Obama was not his wife, some legal scholars say she would be a clear and obvious candidate for the short list to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

Yet, when Stevens’ announced his retirement April 9, not one Black woman immediately surfaced as a so-called “short-list” candidate despite the fact that no Black woman has ever served on the high court. This week, the name of former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears began circulating as one that the president is seriously considering. She would be the nation's first Black female Supreme Court justice. And, there are others equally qualified.

“The fact of the matter is that you can look at profiles in Ebony magazine or some of the women in Jet or Essence magazine or just look at the National Bar Association, which has a contingent of Black women judges and lawyers, to see some of the stars we have who are not well known to a large extent, but clearly have every one of the qualities and qualifications necessary for the job,” said Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree in an interview.

Ogletree declined to name some of those in his mind. But, Penn State constitutional scholar Mary Frances Berry, former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, quickly ticked off several names of qualified Black women in addition to Sears. They included Elaine Jones, former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Jacqueline A. Berrien, chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Berry also agreed that Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman, a Yale Law School graduate and the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, would make a great candidate.

Lani Guinier, Harvard Law School’s first African-American tenured professor, is another legitimate choice. Fourteen years ago, President Clinton nominated, then withdrew Guinier’s name for assistant attorney general.

“I think that it would be a good thing if a Black woman could be appointed since there’s never been one,” said Berry. “Michelle, if she weren’t the president’s wife, is full of qualifications. And there are many qualified Black women.”

Asked to consider herself, Berry scoffed at the suggestion that she is also a qualified candidate for the high court. She said that she is “too old.” But, then she shot down her own argument by recalling that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed by Clinton at the age of 64.

With Stevens’ retirement expected in late spring, Obama is now in the process of exploring the backgrounds and qualifications of prospective candidates. He will likely announce only one person who will then go under extreme scrutiny by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee before an up or down confirmation vote by the entire Senate.

"We hope and expect President Obama would consider candidates from a variety of backgrounds, as he has indicated,” said John Payton, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Certainly, it would be wonderful to have an African-American – male or female – appointed to the Supreme Court. And, yes, it would be nice to hear more African-American women mentioned on the short list of candidates.”

Regardless of the race or gender, Black jurists agree that there is certain criterion that is clearly necessary at this point to balance out the strong bent of conservatism still on the court – including Black Justice Clarence Thomas.

“There is definitely need for someone who has a progressive sense about the role of the Supreme Court Justice and someone who has a sense that the Constitution has to serve everyone in the country,” Ogletree said.