Bloomberg Law
Feb. 28, 2022, 6:20 PMUpdated: Feb. 28, 2022, 10:32 PM

Jackson’s Selection Parallels First Black Woman U.S. Judge (1)

Madison Alder
Madison Alder

Ketanji Brown Jackson closed her remarks at the White House ceremony for her Supreme Court nomination by paying tribute to Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman federal judge in U.S. history.

Jackson, 51, who would make history as the Supreme Court’s first Black woman justice, noted she and Motley share a coincidental connection: They were born the same day 49 years apart.

“Today, I proudly stand on Judge Motley’s shoulders, sharing not only her birthday, but also her steadfast and courageous commitment to equal justice under law,” Jackson said at the Feb. 25 ceremony. “Judge Motley’s life and career have been a true inspiration to me, as I have pursued this professional path.”

Jackson’s speech came more than a half-century after Motley’s appointment to bench. The resemblance between their stories doesn’t stop at their September birthdays and historic nominations. Tomiko Brown-Nagin, author of “Civil Rights Queen,” a new book about Motley’s life, said the two women faced similar criticism.

“One can see perhaps a parallel in the way that some are criticizing Judge Jackson’s career as a public defender–-or really her two-year stint as a public defender–-somehow implying that she is not suited to the judiciary because of that experience representing criminal defendants,” said Brown-Nagin, who is dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Motley was eventually appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by Lyndon Johnson in 1966, but she faced criticism during her confirmation process that her experience as a civil rights litigator was disqualifying. Jackson, like many Biden judicial nominees, has faced criticism from Republicans for her background as a public defender.

“Both of them experienced critics seeking to turn what in fact is a great asset–the wide practice experience with representing historically marginalized people or people who are despised or denigrated in our society–into a liability,” said Brown-Nagin.

Sheryll Cashin, an author and professor at Georgetown University, called Jackson’s tribute to Motley in her speech “moving and prophetic.”

“As a civil rights lawyer, Constance Baker Motley relentlessly shattered racism and patriarchy for others while also demanding respect and freedom and equality for herself as she went through her career,” Cashin said. “The biggest or thickest glass ceiling Motley shattered for Black women was being named to the federal bench.”

Motley’s Confirmation

Motley began her career as lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, fighting the legal battles of the civil rights movement alongside future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

She was the only woman on the legal team arguing against school segregation during the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. She was also the first Black woman to argue a case at the Supreme Court and ultimately argued 10, winning nine.

In 1964, Motley became the first Black woman in the New York state Senate and later became the first woman to serve as borough president in Manhattan. In 1966, she was nominated to the federal bench.

Motley faced pushback even before her nomination. Johnson initially wanted to nominate her to the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. But New York Democratic Sen. Robert F. Kennedy privately told the president that he was worried “constituents might perceive Motely’s appointment as too ‘political’ given her race and her background as a civil rights lawyer,” Brown-Nagin writes in her book.

Johnson eventually nominated Motley to the district court. Despite early appearances that the nomination would move forward smoothly, Motley faced a different criticism. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair James Eastland, a Southern Democrat from Mississippi and segregationist, sought to delay her confirmation process by accusing her of being a communist, Brown-Nagin wrote. His efforts failed.

Motley was confirmed in August 1966. She served as an active judge on the court until 1986, when she took a form of semi-retirement afforded to judges known as senior status. She served in that capacity until her death in 2005.

“It’s to Judge Jackson’s credit that she noted that she stands firmly on the shoulders of Constance Baker Motley. She does,” Brown-Nagin said. “Motley is a terrific model of how to be a path breaker, but as to do it with grace, to ignore the inevitable criticisms, and just do the work, do an excellent job in the position.”

(Updates with quote from Georgetown University professor.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Madison Alder in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at; John Crawley at