Shirley Troutman, a judge on New York’s highest court, was working last week when her daughter texted messages that included a clapping hands emoji. Soon, her phone was buzzing with other celebratory messages. The applause and the excitement was for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who last week was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court and will become its first Black female justice.
Jackson will become the court’s 116th member. That’s special for Troutman, who is the 116th member of her court too.
“As a judge, as a Black woman, I am extremely proud and wish her the best,” said Troutman, who took her seat earlier this year and is the second Black woman to serve on her court. She said she cried “tears of joy” Thursday when Jackson was confirmed.
Troutman is among 17 Black women and 14 Black men currently serving on their state’s highest court, according to the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, which has tracked diversity on those courts. A majority of the women joined the bench within the last five years and, like Jackson, shattered a barrier, becoming the first Black woman on their state’s high court. In interviews, some of those women described not only their own delight at Jackson’s confirmation but also suggested there’s more work to be done to make America’s courts more reflective of its citizens.
“I am so proud and optimistic about her accomplishment and what this means,” said Justice Melissa Long of Rhode Island’s Supreme Court.
Long, who joined her state’s high court in 2021, also feels a “great sense of connection” to Jackson. They were born 10 days apart in 1970 in Washington, D.C. Long’s parents had married in the city because laws against interracial marriage, struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967, prohibited them from getting married in Virginia.
Being the first Black woman and first person of color on her state’s five-member court “feels like a responsibility,” Long said. “It’s an important responsibility, but it does feel like a responsibility.”
That’s in part because diversity overall on state courts is lacking. People of color make up 17% of the judges on state supreme courts, but as of last year, 22 states had high courts where no member identified as a person of color, according to the Brennan Center. In 11 of those states, minorities make up at least 20% of the population, according to the Brennan Center. About 30% of all federal judges, meanwhile, identify as people of color.
Those numbers help explain why the Brennan Center’s Madiba Dennie says she’s wary of people thinking that Jackson’s confirmation means: “We did it. We have a Black woman on the Supreme Court now.” There’s more work to be done, she said, with “huge disparities throughout the rest of the federal judiciary and at the state judiciary as well.”
The history of Black women serving on their state’s highest court goes back to 1988 when Juanita Kidd Stout joined Pennsylvania’s highest court. That was seven years after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. Stout served for a year before she reached the mandatory age of retirement. Today, the four men and three women on Pennsylvania’s highest court are all white.
Other state high courts are more diverse. Maryland has two Black women on its highest court, the Court of Appeals, where members wear red robes with white collars and are called judge, not justice. Judge Shirley M. Watts joined the seven-member court in 2013 and Judge Michele D. Hotten in 2015.
In California, Justice Leondra Kruger was among the women President Joe Biden considered nominating to fulfill his campaign pledge to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court, if given the opportunity. In Ohio, Justice Melody Stewart was a classically trained pianist before making the switch to a career in law. And in Washington, Justice G. Helen Whitener is one of two gay justices and one of seven women on state’s nine-member high court.
In Massachusetts, Kimberly Budd serves as her court’s chief justice, a position she has held since 2020. North Carolina’s Cheri Beasley served as the chief justice of that state’s Supreme Court and is now a leading candidate in the Democratic primary for the 2022 U.S. Senate election.
Louisiana also until recently had a Black woman leading its highest court. Bernette Johnson was elected to the court in 1994 and served as its chief from 2013 to her 2020 retirement. Today, Justice Piper D. Griffin is the second Black woman and third Black person to serve on that court.
Griffin called Jackson’s confirmation “surreal” and “humbling.” “It was one of those things that you never think you’d see in your lifetime. You know, it’s kind of like you, you’re hopeful, but you’re never expecting it,” said Griffin, who was elected to her position in 2020.
Griffin said her phone “blew up” Thursday afternoon when Jackson was confirmed. “I got lots of exclamation points,” she said. One friend, knowing Griffin couldn’t watch Vice President Kamala Harris announce live that Jackson had been confirmed, recorded the moment on her phone and texted it to her. Over and over and over again friends texted one word: Yes!
Troutman, the judge on New York’s highest court, said one of the things her daughter sent her that day was a picture of Jackson and the president hugging. It’s important that Jackson is the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, Troutman said, but: “It is most important that she shall not be the last.”