Jamie Stengle and Jonathan Drew
DURHAM, N.C. — When Markicia Horton graduates this spring from the Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston and takes the bar, she'll be stepping into a world where a Black woman is set to be on the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time in its 232-year history.
With Stephen Breyer’s retirement from the court and President Joe Biden’s commitment to name a Black woman as his nominee, it is likely that, as the 25-year-old Horton moves into a profession, there will be a Black woman as a Supreme Court justice. What that means for her and thousands of other young women of color in law schools or serving as lawyers around the country is incalculable.
But it also comes with concerns. According to the National Association for Law Placement, Black women made up 3.17 percent of associates at America's law firms in 2021 but less than 1 percent of partners. Women of color overall made up nearly 16 percent of associates at America's law firms but only about 4 percent of the partners.
And across the federal bench, Black women hold 45 of the 850 lifetime appointments to district and appeals judgeships — or about 5 percent, according to government data.
“I feel like it’s really important to have African Americans in positions that really do affect us,” said Horton, who has a bachelor’s degree in geoscience, and plans to pursue work in energy and environmental law in hopes of representing Black communities that are affected by environmental issues.
“A lot of times, when I see environmental issues that are in predominantly African American communities or low socio-economic communities, as a whole, I never see any other faces that represent the whole. I kind of want to be that driving force.”
That, Horton said, is what a Black woman on the Supreme Court will bring to the table. “I think it will open so many doors for a lot of us, especially when you look at the numbers in the legal profession and how often African American women do leave big law firms because of the lack of opportunities,” she said, adding that African American women are not making partner at the same rate as others.
“Having someone sit on the highest bench in the country, I definitely feel like it will open a lot of doors for us,” Horton said.
She said having a Black woman on the court will also be an important way to bring a new viewpoint to the court that hasn’t been there before.
“Reading cases, reading opinions of justices, it’s very interesting to see the difference in opinions based on gender, based on race,” Horton said.
Her point of view at the Houston school is one shared more than 1,100 miles away at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, where Professor Brenda Reddix-Smalls raised the issue during a Zoom session of the constitutional law course she teaches.
Second-year law student Antoinette Stone, 26, said that, with liberal-leaning justices still outnumbered, Biden’s nominee might not sway overall case outcomes, but that even dissenting opinions “still hold weight.”
Fellow second-year student Destiny Boone, 27, thought the diversity on the court was important but felt that whoever the nominee is, her credentials would be questioned more because of her race.
“I personally believe that diversity is important,” the student from Suffolk, Virginia, said, but “I feel that unfortunately, we do live in a society where African Americans … have to work twice as hard to get to certain positions.”
In North Carolina, examples of prominent Black female jurists include current state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, who has been suggested as someone Biden could consider for the vacancy created by Breyer, and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who is favored to win the Democratic nomination in the state’s U.S. Senate race. Beasley was the first Black woman to oversee North Carolina’s judicial branch.
After the class ended, several students lingered to ask questions about assignments, and talk turned back to Biden’s upcoming pick. Adaora Oguno, a 28-year old second-year student from Nashville, Tennessee, said that Biden’s pick will fill a century’s old vacancy that has left issues specific to Black women unaddressed.
“At the end of the day, we’re the only ones who have not had a seat at the table,” she said. “The fact that there has not been a Black female justice yet is kind of ridiculous.”
In subsequent phone interview, Oguno said that she’s cautiously optimistic about Biden’s promise and hopes he’s able to fulfill it. She said that she hopes to work as a prosecutor and eventually become a judge herself, so having a Black woman as a U.S. Supreme Court justice would prove that a pathway to the top echelon of the legal profession is attainable.
“I’ve always wanted to be a judge, but a lot of times you have these dreams and they’re just a dream. It’s not reality. But for me, it makes it where, ‘Oh, this can be a reality,’” she said.