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Black Women Justices Matter

By nominating Ketanji Brown Jackson to the US Supreme Court, President Joe Biden has implicitly acknowledged that the administration of justice in a complex society requires institutions with "affective appeal." Her appointment is not just good politics; it will also lead to better jurisprudence.

CAMBRIDGE – In an October 2013 address at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Law lecture theater, I showed students a “class photo” of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court and challenged them to “spot the difference.” It wasn’t a case for Sherlock Holmes: of the 11 justices, all were white, and only one was a woman – the solitary, if indomitable, Baroness Hale.

A decade later, my colleagues across the Atlantic, thankfully, do not have to play this game with their students. Three sitting Supreme Court justices are women, two are non-white, and now the United States is on the cusp of another historic judicial appointment. On March 21, US Court of Appeals Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden’s nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, will begin her confirmation process in the US Senate. If her appointment is successful, Biden will not only have fulfilled a major campaign promise by putting the first African-American woman on the Court; he also will have acknowledged a core truth about how legal institutions should work.

Far from being a tokenistic nod to left-wing identity politics (as right-wing critics inevitably will contend), Jackson’s appointment would reinforce an essential but under-theorized feature of well-functioning legal systems: affective appeal. The makeup of a country’s highest court should resemble the makeup of the country.

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