Why Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation needs to be more than affirmation of excellence

Top female lawyers of color in N.J. say work is not done: ‘We’ve always been knocking at the door … it’s just that they’re now opening it'

Paulette Brown, who recently retired as the chief diversity officer at Locke Lord LLP and is the past president of several organizations, including the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, took in all of the confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson for a spot on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Like so many Black female lawyers, she couldn’t look away, not with so many of the experiences they have faced — and continue to face — so prominently on display in what she dubbed a “clown show.”

“We were so glued, literally, to our computers, our televisions, just to watch her, because we recognize some of those expressions,” she said.

As the first African American woman to be president of the American Bar Association, in 2015, Brown understands the burden of blazing a path all too well.

A graduate of Seton Hall Law, Brown said Black women are used to facing verbal assaults and people questioning their capabilities, intelligence and knowledge. That’s why watching Jackson — unquestionably qualified by pedigree and experience — maintain her composure for three days was so riveting, she said.

“That is what we are required to do as Black women,” she said. “We can’t throw a temper tantrum like (Supreme Court) Justice (Brett) Kavanaugh did when people questioned him about really legitimate things.

“She’s got the absolute correct temperament and disposition to be a judge.”

Brown Jackson’s confirmation by the Senate, 53-47, on Thursday afternoon, a historic event that makes her the first Black woman to serve on the court in its 232-year history, is one to be appreciated and celebrated, Brown said.

Brown Jackson likely will not be sworn in until this summer — or until after Justice Stephen Breyer retires. Breyer had previously indicated he intends to finish out the current term, which is expected to end in late June or July.

Whenever Brown Jackson is sworn in, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of pushing for diversity. After all, she is one of just a handful of women and people of color to serve on a court where 108 of the 116 justices have been white men.

ROI-NJ spoke with several top Black female lawyers, some of whom also have tasted the success — and burden — of being the first to achieve something in the Garden State, about KBJ and her confirmation.

The overwhelming consensus was that, while it is indeed a historical moment, the struggle is not over.

“The work is not done,” Brown said. “I think that it’s a similar situation where people said Barack Obama was elected, so, you know, we’ve overcome. That is not the case. There is still work that has to be done.”


For Michellene Davis, a former executive at RWJBarnabas Health, first African American New Jersey state treasurer, the first African American chief policy counsel in the New Jersey Governor’s Office and a Seton Hall Law grad, the hearings were a reminder of the daily struggle.

“Watching the hearings, for so many of us, was triggering — and it was triggering because we know what it is like to work twice as hard, to be paid half as much, to be respected a quarter as much as those who just walked into the room,” Davis said.

About Anjalee Khemlani

Anjalee Khemlani is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance. A key part of the team that founded ROI-NJ in 2017, she now serves as a contributing writer, covering issues involving diversity & inclusion.

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Davis said she has often experienced the clear difference in treatment based solely on her gender or color of her skin, or both.

“I remember walking into a courtroom and having a judge say, ‘Take a seat,’ and wait for my lawyer to arrive, when the truth of the matter was, I was the attorney of record,” Davis said.

Brown had a similarly frustrating story. When her term as president of the ABA ended in 2016, the comments she received shocked her.

“People said to me, ‘Oh, you really grew into the position,’ or ‘I was inclined not to vote for you because I didn’t think you’d be able to,’” she said.

“They said those things, and, moreover, they thought they were complimenting me.”

It’s why all the women talked about KBJ’s confirmation in context of a word that is prominent in the Black community: excellence. She represents the excellence that the community drills into kids at a young age to strive for.

Pamela Miller, past president of the Garden State Bar Association, a Seton Hall Law grad, former executive at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey and current CEO and president of consulting firm Summit Global Strategies, explained what that means.

“You’re Black — people are going to think less of you as soon as you walk in the room; they’re going to think you can’t do whatever,” she said.

“Let your behavior, your demeanor, your preparation, your education, your accomplishments and your presentation tell the story.”

That, the women said, is what KBJ did during the 13 hours of hearings.


Donita Judge, a Rutgers Law grad, vice chairperson of the New Jersey Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that pressure to strive for excellence is met with constant doubt and underappreciation in the workplace.

“You’re always questioning whether you’re good enough,” Judge said. “For us, for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to receive this nomination, in some ways, validates all of us.”

Miller agreed. She said all African Americans, and especially women, have felt the pressure.

“You can be the best of the best and still somehow be made to feel like you’re coming up short,” she said.

All agreed the pressure now is on for Jackson in a way it hasn’t been for any other Black female lawyer.

“She is creating a template for the future, and has zero margin for error,” Miller said. “You strive for excellence in not only everything you do, but the way you do everything.”

They all hope the confirmation will have a ripple effect in New Jersey and around the country for Black female lawyers.

There are few Black female partners in major law firms in the state. In fact, many Black women say they leave law firms because they aren’t afforded the same opportunities to pursue career-building cases as their male counterparts. They often end up in the public sector, which is viewed as somewhat friendlier toward women of color, according to Judge.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, there’s something else systemic that is happening in those law firms or in those places where Black women are unable to thrive,” Judge said.

Which is why Jackson’s confirmation can be more than just a symbolic first — it can set the norm.

“We’ve always been knocking at the door,” Judge said. “It’s just that they’re now opening it.”