As Biden prepares to nominate the first Black woman to the nation’s highest court, members of this small, elite group are watching with complicated emotions.
Tariro Mzezewa and
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ATLANTA — Alisia Adamson Profit, a Black woman who has practiced law for more than a dozen years in Central Florida, walked into a courtroom one morning last June for a pretrial hearing, just as she had done countless times.
But this time was different. A court deputy asked Ms. Profit — and none of the other lawyers in the courtroom, all of whom were white — for her identification.
It wasn’t the first time she felt singled out as part of a tiny universe of Black women judges and lawyers.
“It’s the idea that somehow I don’t belong here,” said Ms. Profit, a former public defender who founded a criminal defense firm based in Orlando.
As President Biden prepares to nominate the first Black woman to the nation’s highest court, members of the small, elite group of Black women lawyers and judges are reflecting about their place in their profession and watching with complicated emotions.
By some estimates, they represent perhaps just 2 percent of the nation’s 1.3 million lawyers.
Many say they have experienced discrimination or been second-guessed. At times, they have felt dismissed by others in the legal world.
Knowing how isolating that can be, older Black women, many of whom were the first in their families to go to law school, described an instinctive urge to mentor younger Black women. And despite the challenges, they described still loving the law and doing what they considered their dream jobs.
Now, for the first time in their lives, someone who looks like them — and likely experienced similar career challenges — could ascend to the Supreme Court and rule on issues foundational to American lives, from voting and abortion rights to health care and affirmative action.
“Finally. We now have the possibility of a Supreme Court that would look more like America,” said Kara D. Beverly, 39, an employment lawyer who now works as an equity compliance investigator at Johns Hopkins University
Mr. Biden’s vow to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court has launched conversations across the country about what that would mean. Many see the president’s promise as a significant step toward overdue representation, closely following the victorious ascent of another Black woman lawyer, Kamala Harris, to the vice presidency.
But along with that excitement is frustration that it has taken more than two centuries for this moment to arrive. And Black women in the legal community are bracing for the possibility that the yet-to-be-named nominee will be judged unfairly as an affirmative action appointment.
“People are going to say she only got this because she was a Black woman, and that could not be further from the truth. She would not even be considered if she wasn’t qualified, prepared and ready,” said Ms. Profit, 38. “There will be a segment that will discredit her ability to serve.”
On Friday, Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, said in a radio interview that the nominee would be a “beneficiary” of affirmative action. In a statement on Saturday, a White House spokesman, Andrew Bates, rebuked the senator, noting that President Ronald Reagan had announced that he would appoint a woman before he named the court’s first, Sandra Day O’Connor.
“President Biden’s promise that he would nominate and confirm the first Black woman to the Supreme Court is in line with the best traditions of both parties and our nation,” the statement said.
The expected appointment will become a historic moment in the court’s lumbering progress toward diversity. Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice, was appointed in 1916. Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice, ascended to the court in 1967. Justice O’Connor joined 14 years later in 1981. And Sonia Sotomayor took the bench in 2009, becoming the first Hispanic jurist. With each nomination, the court got closer to representing America.
In the hours following the announcement that Justice Stephen G. Breyer would be retiring, Angela Groves, a civil rights attorney in Washington, and her mother, Emanuella Groves, an appellate judge in Ohio, feverishly exchanged text messages about the Supreme Court opening.
Although the two hadn’t had time to speak at length — they were planning to have a long discussion this weekend — they sent each other links to articles about potential nominees.
“When Barack Hussein Obama was elected, that seemed impossible,” said Judge Groves, 63. “I think it will be someone probably in their late 40s who hopefully will have a track record of revealing a problem, educating others, have the courage to say no and be able to do it artfully, so we can begin to shift the needle to improve the administration of justice.”
The younger Ms. Groves, 32, credited her parents, both of whom were lawyers, with teaching her about social justice and planting the seed that she could follow in their career footsteps. She attended law school at New York University, where she was one of about 60 Black students.
That experience was in stark contrast to that of her mother, who was elected to the Eighth District Court of Appeals in Ohio in 2020 after serving as a trial judge in the Cleveland Municipal Court for 18 years. When she was studying at Case Western Reserve School of Law in Cleveland in the late 1970s, she was one of fewer than a dozen Black students, and among only a handful of Black women. She hadn’t grown up around any lawyers and never imagined she would become a judge.
“I didn’t think it was within my reach,” she said, adding that her husband, whom she met in law school, had championed her throughout her career. During law school, she was neighbors with Sara J. Harper, a former prosecutor and appellate judge who was the first African American woman to graduate from Case Western’s law school. But if only she had known more Black women practicing law, Judge Groves said of her university days.
The younger Ms. Groves said that it was also important to her that the new justice, as a Democratic appointee, would be liberal.
“It is important that we have representation, but that alone is not going to be enough to bring about a more just society,” she said. “It’s important not only that there is a Black woman, but that there’s someone who has a track record of doing work that uplifts and supports Black communities and underserved communities.”
President Biden made the promise to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court at a debate in early 2020 as his candidacy was sputtering. At the time, he was days away from the Democratic primary in South Carolina where he needed a big win among African American voters.
“I’m looking forward to making sure there’s a Black woman on the Supreme Court to make sure we in fact get everyone represented,” Mr. Biden said that night.
The pledge helped bolster both the support of Representative James E. Clyburn and Black voters, which make up a large portion of the party electorate. Mr. Biden ultimately won the South Carolina primary, marking the turning point in his campaign. In turn, during his presidential victory speech, Mr. Biden explicitly thanked Black voters for revitalizing his campaign, declaring, “you’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”
And while the inclusion of a Black woman to the court would not shift the conservative majority, said Elise Boddie, a law professor at Rutgers University who last year was appointed to Biden’s Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court, it would mark the first time that a large segment of Americans would feel represented by those in power. That visibility alone could go a long way in influencing career choices.
Christopher Kang, the chief counsel and a co-founder of Demand Justice, a progressive advocacy group pushing for judges of different backgrounds and professional experiences, said that he regularly interviewed potential judicial nominees when he worked for the White House during the Obama administration. His first question was always why they had applied at that moment in their careers.
Women, people of color and L.G.B.T.Q. lawyers typically said they had been encouraged because they had not grown up seeing anyone who looked like them in those roles.
Latosha Lewis Payne, 47, the presiding judge of the 55th Civil District Court in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, said that unlike many of her peers, she had a diverse group of mentors that included Black women and men when she began her career.
“There needs to be a support system for us because we’re all going to experience things that some of our other colleagues may not ever have experienced,” Ms. Payne said. “And because there are more African American women in this space now, there are more opportunities for support and connection.”
Black women account for an overwhelming majority of all Black law students and are entering the field in greater numbers than ever before, according to the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, which surveyed Black alumni and tracked the careers of Black women lawyers.
Today, younger law students are finding much of their support online. When Stephanie Goggans, 36, decided to pivot from her 13-year career in the military to the legal profession, she turned to “Black Girls Do Law,” an Instagram account with 30,000 followers, where she found many who looked like her and harbored the same ambitions.
In addition to sharing celebratory photos of graduations and acceptances to law schools and new jobs, the account offers practice tests, study tips and resources to connect with other Black women lawyers and students.
Ms. Goggans, who met a Black lawyer for the first time in her life when she was in the U.S. Army, is now in her second year at Cleveland State University’s law school and interning for Judge Groves.
“This is hard no matter who you are, but my peers — half of their parents are lawyers so they’ve always known they can do this,” she said of her white counterparts. “When it comes to mentorship: Black women. I have not had an experience where a Black woman made me feel that I couldn’t do this. It’s always been support.”