12:23 p.m. April 7: The U.S. Senate voted 53-47 to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman Supreme Court justice.
On a morning in late March, A’Kiesha Soliman showed a photo on her phone to her 7-year-old daughter while she got ready for school. In it, a beaming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson stood before the Senate Judiciary Committee, her right hand up and her eyes alight. Taken on the first day of Jackson’s confirmation hearings, the image captured a historic moment: the first time that a Black woman has been nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“What do you notice about the picture?” Soliman asked her daughter, Autumn, as she washed her face and brushed her teeth. “Do you notice anything about her?”
Soliman, who is a senior trial lawyer in the El Paso County Attorney’s Office, remembers Autumn’s response: “Oh! She has brown skin like mine. She has hair like mine.”
“It was honestly a very proud moment,” said Soliman, 36. “I felt so happy to be able to show her that image and to be able to point to Miss Brown Jackson. It tells her, basically, the sky is the limit to anything she wants to accomplish — even if no one who looks like her has ever held that position before.”
With the Supreme Court established in 1789, the promise of a Black female Supreme Court justice has been 233 years in the making. Of its 120 justices, 117 have been white and 115 have been men.
If confirmed, Jackson, 51, would be the first Black woman to serve on the nation’s highest court. After four days of sometimes contentious nomination hearings two weeks ago, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are scheduled to vote on Monday on whether to recommend Jackson’s confirmation to the full Senate.
From there, senators will debate and vote. The confirmation requires a simple majority vote, rather than the supermajority required to pass most legislation through the upper chamber.
Other Black female attorneys in El Paso, like Soliman, are paying rapt attention to the historic nomination.
Karen Dykes, 42, who ran for El Paso County district attorney in 2020 and works as an attorney at the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, has snuck glimpses of the confirmation hearings on her phone while caring for her 10-week-old baby.
Christina Ford, 54, a senior division chief at the El Paso County Attorney’s Office, recalled watching Jackson’s opening statement “and just shedding tears of joy, to see this in my lifetime,” she said.
Ouisa Davis, a private attorney who became El Paso’s first Black female judge in 1996, tuned in to the nomination hearings between her own court hearings. For Davis, 60, Jackson’s nomination marks the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise.
Throughout U.S. history, many of the nation’s laws have been used to enslave, disenfranchise and economically oppress African Americans, even as its foundational legal documents have professed ideals of individual freedom.
“It’s a time of realization,” Davis said. “It’s the endorsement of a check. And that check is a small amount. But in an era where our civil rights have been reduced, and our voting rights are under attack, it’s a bit of an affirmation that America can be America.”
Identifying with Jackson
Davis was originally drawn to Jackson’s words — a clear and beautifully crafted legal opinion, Davis said, that caused her to sit up and take notice of Jackson, who was on the U.S. Sentencing Commission at the time.
“I’m really excited that a Black woman is going to be on the Supreme Court,” Davis said, “and I’m equally excited that it’s going to be her. She’s just done an incredible job in her work.”
The five lawyers interviewed by El Paso Matters identified with Jackson in a number of ways: as a working mom, as someone who attended public schools, as a professional with a traditional African name and as someone with natural hair. The right of African American women to wear natural hair styles in the workplace has been a source of conflict and discrimination, and has been a topic of past Supreme Court cases.
Davis, whose father is white and mother is Black, also connected with Jackson’s interracial marriage.
Davis’ parents married in the 1950s, when it was illegal in many states for them to do so. They settled their family in El Paso in 1974 “because it was safe,” she said. “And so seeing (Jackson’s) beautiful children, the reality that love is love — there’s just kind of a connection there.”
Jackson grew up in Florida, attended Harvard University for both college and law school and would be the first Supreme Court justice to have served as a federal public defender. The only other justice to have worked in criminal defense was Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first African American Supreme Court justice who became known on the court for advancing civil rights.
There are roughly a dozen Black female attorneys in El Paso, said Ford, who moved to El Paso from Detroit in 1992. That number reflects both the small size of the city’s African American community and the barriers that continue to exist for Black professionals in law, Dykes said.
Dykes attended a Texas law school in the early 2000s with no Black female professors and just 14 African American students in her class. “I’m still looking for a mentor,” she said.
Seeing a Black woman serve as a Supreme Court justice would have made a difference to Cameasha Turner. The 27-year-old University of Texas at El Paso alumna participated in the university’s Law School Preparation Institute and once drew headlines as captain of the women’s basketball team — she is now a third-year associate at a large law firm in Dallas.
The first in her family to attend college, Turner was drawn to law after learning that her father had been imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, and after observing systemic inequities growing up in a poor community in Dallas. She dreamed of being a judge.
“Coming from where I come from, I’m telling you, for me 90% of the battle was confidence,” Turner said.
“(Jackson’s nomination) allowed me to think of all the things people have told me growing up, or all the things they tell my friends. ‘You won’t be a lawyer, … you’re first (generation) and you won’t succeed. You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ — can’t, can’t, can’t. And I see Judge Jackson, and all I see is can, can, can.”
‘Proof that it is possible’
With all the emotional highs posed by Jackson’s historic nomination have come some searing lows. Pointed questioning by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee brought up familiar feelings for many Black professionals, Turner said. It brought back times when they were made to feel less-than, or not deserving to be in the same legal space as their white peers.
Turner attended law school at the University of Notre Dame, where she took two courses from then-professor Amy Coney Barrett, now a Supreme Court justice who Turner described as a “great professor.” She paid close attention to her former professor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2020 and was “disappointed but not shocked,” comparing the treatment of Barrett during her hearings to what she saw in Jackson’s.
“There was this automatic assumption that she wasn’t qualified,” Turner said. “As a Black woman, we go through things like that in the workplace. It’s not anything that I haven’t seen or experienced.”
Davis recalled moments when Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., repeatedly interrupted Jackson during her questioning. “That’s what happens to us. Black women, even in the practice of law, in professional settings, in meetings, we’re cut off,” Davis said. “They put their hands up to us. They shut us up. They don’t let us finish. They’ll ask us a question and then not let us finish our sentences. It was just so classic.”
“Brett Kavanaugh could be angry and almost unhinged,” Dykes noted, recalling the Supreme Court justice’s heated confirmation process in 2018, where the Republican nominee faced multiple sexual assault allegations during his hearings. “But (Jackson is) in a position where she cannot show any of that sort of negative emotion. Because if she were to show a glimpse of anger, she will be labeled an angry Black woman.”
“It’s like she has to defend essentially being Black,” Dykes added, noting moments where Republican committee members sought to tie Jackson to critical race theory. “Kavanaugh, of course, was accused of attempted rape. The only crime (for Jackson) is really being a Black woman in America.”
But amid those low points came admiration for Jackson’s grace and poise under pressure. And if Jackson does, indeed, become the first African American female to serve on the nation’s highest court, Dykes said her place on the bench will function for the younger generations as a form of proof.
“It will affect their concept of what it means to be an American — that you can potentially achieve anything, even at the highest level. Before, that was more of a thing that you said, but there was no proof that it was in any way a reality,” Dykes said. Now, she said, “it’s showing proof that it is possible — even if difficult, even if nearly impossible — it is possible to achieve.”
Many groups in the United States are still waiting for that proof, Soliman said, noting that, for example, an Asian American has never been appointed to the Supreme Court. She hopes that Jackson’s nomination will serve as inspiration for them too.
“Maybe even someone from a different background can look at her nomination and say, ‘I can be the first member of my group to accomplish this as well,’” Soliman said.