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#SistaSCOTUS: Changing the Face of the Court

The full episode transcript for Sista SCOTUS.


Into America


Archival Recording: A pretty difficult day for him in New Hampshire. I mean, pretty stunning that he's been the front runner all this time, not even winning a delegate her in New Hampshire.

Archival Recording: Not even winning a delegate here in New Hampshire.

Trymaine Lee: Joe Biden was having a pretty rough start to the primaries back in 2020.

Archival Recording: It can't be overstated. This is another devastating setback for the Biden campaign. For the former vice president. His entire argument was centered around electability. That he was the strongest candidate to beat President Trump. And now these two results in Iowa, now what we're seeing in New Hampshire at this point in time, calls that into question.

Lee: Then on February 25th, just four days before the South Carolina primary, the so called Black primary, where African Americans make up a majority of the state's Democrats, Joe Biden stepped onto a debate stage and made a promise.

Joe Biden: I'm looking forward to making sure there's a Black woman on the Supreme Court to make sure (APPLAUSE) that in fact get every representation. Not a joke. Not a joke. I'd push very hard for that. And--

Archival Recording: Vice president--

Biden: --my mother's motto was, she said, you know, "You're defined by your courage. You're redeemed by your loyalty." I am loyal. I do what I say.

Lee: Biden made this pledge under pressure from South Carolina's long-serving representative, James Clyburn. And it worked. The next morning Clyburn, who holds a lot of clout among that huge contingent of Black South Carolina Democrats, made an announcement.

James Clyburn: I want the public to know that I'm voting for Joe Biden. South Carolina should be voting for Joe Biden.

Lee: And a few days later, buoyed by Clyburn's endorsement and the support of Black voters, Biden dominated the state's primary with nearly 50% of the vote. The decisive wind put wind in the sails of Biden's campaign. A wind that would ultimately carry him all the way to the White House. And last week, President Biden stuck to his word.

Biden: It's my honor to introduce to the country a daughter of former public school teachers. A proven consensus builder. And accomplished lawyer. A distinguished jurist on one of the nation's most prestigious courts. My nominee focus right United States Supreme Court is Judge Ketanji Jackson.

Lee: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has a classic Supreme Court pedigree. She attended Ivy League schools. And she clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer, who's retirement paved the way for her nomination. Jackson currently sits on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Biden: She understands the broader impact of her decisions. Whether it's cases addressing the rights of workers in our government's service, she cares about making sure that our democracy works for the American people. She listens. She looks people in the eye. Lawyers, defendants, victims, and families. And she strives to ensure that everyone understands why she made a decision. What the law is. And what it means to them.

Lee: If confirmed, Judge Jackson would be just the 8th Supreme Court justice who is not a white man. And she would be the third Black person to sit on the court, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. She would also be the first justice who has worked as a public defender. As she accepted the historic nomination, Judge Jackson thanked her parents for setting her on this path.

Ketanji Brown Jackson: My father made the fateful decision to transition from his job as a public high school history teacher and go to law school. Some of my earliest memories are of him sitting at the kitchen table, reading his law books. I watched him study. And he became my first professional role model. My mother, who was also a public high school teacher, provided invaluable support in those early days, working full time to enable my father's career transition, while also guiding and inspiring four-year-old me.

Lee: As Ketanji Brown Jackson delivered these words, she wasn't just speaking for herself. She was speaking to the scores of Black women who would draw inspiration from them.

April Reign: We have to see ourselves. The viability. This country owes so much to Black women. And we repeatedly put our lives, our blood, sweat, and tears on the line for this country.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Now that President Biden has nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, we're taking a moment to reflect on the magnitude of this moment. The sisterhood of Black women who have her back. And the fight that's still ahead. (LONG PAUSE) Ketanji Brown Jackson grew up in Miami, Florida, with a mother who worked in the public school system and a father who was a lawyer.

She often says, like she did in her nomination acceptance speech, that her interest in law goes all the way back to seeing her dad study while he was in law school. But, as she told a group of students at the University of Georgia law school back in March of 2017, she really got started on this path in high school when she joined the debate team.

Brown Jackson: I learned how to reason and how to write. And I gained the self confidence that can sometimes be quite difficult for women and minorities to develop at an early age. I have no doubt that of all of the various things that I've done, it was my high school experience as a competitive speaker that taught me how to lean in, despite the obstacles. To stand firm in the face of challenges. To work hard. To be resilient. To strive for excellence. And to believe that anything is possible.

Lee: Inspired by an annual high school debate tournament at Harvard, Judge Jackson went to Harvard for both undergrad and law school. Then she bounced between private practice and government work, including some time as a federal public defender in Washington, D.C.

Brown Jackson: In 2009, the White House called. And I got the chance to be considered for nomination to a full-time seat on the United States Sentencing Commission, which is the judicial branch agency that develops federal sentencing policy. And it was well worth enduring what I can only say was the extremely nerve-racking nomination and confirmation process. I actually taught myself to knit as a way to channel my nervous energy during that time. If anybody wants a scarf, I'm your source. (LAUGHTER)

Lee: A few years later, Judge Jackson went through that confirmation process again. This time, to become a judge on the federal district court in D.C. And then in 2017, Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly. And talk of Supreme Court vacancy dominated the national conversation. But Judge Jackson didn't realize just how dominant it was until her daughter Leila, just 11 years old at the time, came home from school one day and repeated a conversation she had with friends.

Brown Jackson: And they said to her, you know, your mom's a judge. She should really apply for that position. (LAUGHTER) Now, Leila thought that that was a pretty good idea. And so she had come to tell me that I should submit an application for the open Supreme Court seat.

Well, I explained to her that getting to be on the Supreme Court isn't really the kind of job that you apply for. You just have to be lucky enough to have the president find you among the thousands of people who might want to do that job.

To which Leila responded, "Well, if the president has to find you, I'm gonna write him write him a letter to tell him who you are." (LAUGHTER) She trotted off. And she came back a little while later with the following hand-written note. "Dear Mr. President, while you are considering judges to fill Justice Scalia's seat on the Supreme Court, I would like to add my mother, Ketanji Brown Jackson of the district court to the list. I, her daughter, Leila Jackson, of 11 years old, (LAUGHTER) strongly believe that she would be an excellent fit for the position."

Lee: Five years later, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson stood in the Cross Hall of the White House and accepted President Biden's nomination to the highest court in the land.

Biden: Judge Jackson, congratulations.

Brown Jackson: Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you very much, Mr. President. I am truly humbled by the extraordinary honor of this nomination. And I am especially grateful for the care that you have taken in discharging your constitutional duty in service of our democracy, with all that is going on in the world today.

Lee: Arriving at this moment took years of hard work from teams of activists. When Jackson accepted the nomination, the women of a group called Sista SCOTUS were watching and cheering her on. For months, they had been pushing their She Will Rise campaign, to hold Biden to his promise to name a Black woman to the bench. I sat down with two of the group's co-founders. I love a great name. Who's the woman behind She Will Rise and Sista SCOTUS? Who came up--

Reign: Come on, now--

Lee: --with the names?

Reign: She Will Rise is a hashtag. (LAUGHTER) So, yeah, I won't take credit for that one.

Lee: That's April Reign. And she's not kidding about the hashtag. Back in 2015, she came up with the hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite. April was a campaign finance lawyer for decades, and now runs a media strategy firm. Kim Tignor is a lawyer specializing in intellectual property and social justice. And says she owes her focus to April.

Kim Tignor: She got up during one of the cohorts that we participated in and was talking about her movement, the #OscarsSoWhite movement. And was talking about, as organizers, how frustrating it was to be able to control your movement. The way she spoke, it was so powerful. And it was so passionate. And it really did inspire some of the work that I do today.

Lee: Kim and April both live in Washington, D.C. And they're dedicated to uplifting and supporting Black women. Kim says Sista SCOTUS and the She Will Rise campaign came out of that mission in the summer of 2020.

Tignor: That was, for me, the summer of all summers. We were in the midst of a global pandemic. We were in the midst of one of the most contentious and important presidential campaigns I had ever participated in. But we also had to endure the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.

And what we saw was people bringing energy to the movement. Taking to the streets with an energy I'd never seen before. But what I noticed was that there was no intention to bring the Supreme Court and this promise that Biden had made, it wasn't integrated into the demands.

It wasn't integrated into the strategy for reform. At the same time, we're in the midst of a global pandemic that has a disparate impact on Black and brown bodies. The Supreme Court is preparing to hear oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act, right?

This is a court that's making decisions on whose vote is going to be counted. This is a court that's going to be making decisions on mask mandates. But we were not connecting the dots as far as reform in the resistance that I thought that was incredibly important.

And so I called up some of my very brilliant Sista friends and talked to them about coming together and lighting a fire within our community. And helping connect the dots on reform, right? Increased accountability for police reform. Sentencing reform. Criminal justice reform. Voting reform. All of these issues that were gonna be before the Supreme Court. And just make sure that those two, the Supreme Court was also integrated into our strategies for change.

Reign: You know, I think that this country owes so much to Black women. And we repeatedly put our lives, our blood, sweat, and tears on the line for this country. And so part of this is also fulfillment of the promise that then candidate Biden made when he was campaigning. We know that Black women show up and vote for the Democratic party consistently more than any other block. And so it matters in that sense as well.

Lee: They wanted to make sure this wouldn't be an empty campaign promise. To do that, they needed to keep the issue of nominating a Black woman to the Supreme Court in the national conversation. April, Kim, and the women of She Will Rise staged a photo with 100 young Black girls in judicial robes.

And kept the image trending on social media. And since federal appointments are often seen as a gateway tot. Supreme Court, She Will Rise set up an online tracker to keep tabs on how Black women were moving through the confirmation process to be federal judges.

They also tapped into a range of online communities to keep people talking about the issue. They want people to understand the weight of the court and the power a single justice can hold. Key civil rights decisions, like Shelby v. Holder, the 2013 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, were decided on a slim 5-4 margin.

Tignor: You see it over and over and over again. The Court is a deliberative decision-making body. I want to just hone in on that just for a second. We have the day of oral argument where we watch the Supreme Court justices ask the lawyers questions.

Make them argue their theories of the case. And put forth the best defense of their positions. If you look at a lot of the commentary that will come out from those, people will start trying to predict the headspace that these justices and where they think that the justices are going to land.

But what's often missed from this conversation is that when they retreat to their chambers, they are having conversations both in informal and formal channels, where they are discussing their perspective, their theories of the case, and the arguments that they feel support their position.

And we know that throughout history, of the Court, we've had justices change their mind as a result of those conversations. So these deliberations are important. And so what we have now is someone who is bringing in a new perspective.

Lee: And if confirmed, that new perspective would come in the form of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. More on that when we come back.

Lee: Both April Reign and Kim Tignor were inspired to become lawyers by their parents. Kim's father was a judge.

Tignor: My dad would make it a point that whenever there was a really wonderful Black woman lawyer arguing before him, he would make me come in and court watch. In D.C., with have one of the greatest public defender offices in the country. People come from all over the country to be able to serve with that public defender office. And so, you know, these sistas, they were inspiring. And I just remember just enjoying and watching them move in the courtroom. And just knowing that that's where I wanted to be.

Lee: April's mother went to law school but necessary practiced. So both of you in your own ways inspired by your parents. But I wonder when y'all were coming up, were there Black lawyers who were, like, role models? And Black women lawyers in particular who inspired you in some way?

Reign: For me, it was Barbara Jordan.

Lee: Barbara Jordan was an iconic lawyer and civil rights activist in Texas. In 1973, she became the first Black woman from the South to serve in Congress.

Reign: And Barbara Jordan was just the queen of Texas as far as I was concerned. Seeing what she did and all of the ceilings that she broke was incredibly inspiring for me. And I ended up going to the University of Texas at Austin for undergrad and UT Law School. And she just stayed with me, you know, as I was going through that journey.

Lee: April and Kim have now gone from watching figures like Barbara Jordan and learning from the guidance of their parents, to advocating and pushing for Black women at the highest levels of the legal system.

Brown Jackson: I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded, will inspire future generations of Americans.

Lee: Kim says as she watched Judge Jackson accept the nomination she was overcome with emotion.

Tignor: So I have to tell you. I'm not really a cryer, (LAUGH) right? I'm not. But that day, that moment, to me it was perfection. She was so excellent, right? This perfect marriage of brilliance and kindness and humanity. I think that that day will be marked as a day in which we started to rebuild the public's faith in the Supreme Court.

My daughters will now grow up with someone that looks like them sitting on the Court. And I just think it's so powerful. I mean, when I saw President Biden addressing the folks with this phenomenal woman on one side, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, and then Vice President Kamala Harris, so moving.

That is history being made. And it is something that generations will look to. I mean, it is a moment where we really did get to be the America that we all aspire to be. The America that we want to be. And the America that I have missed for the last few years. It was a shifting and beautiful moment for me.

Lee: Wow. April, how'd you feel hearing that?

Reign: I still get chills. And I am the least emotional of the four of us in the group. I do not do emotions.

Lee: First of all, I think y'all lying. (LAUGH) This one don't cry. You're not emotional. If you gotta preface what you gonna say with that.

Reign: It's true. But it was a moment. It was a very special moment. And, you know, she was only there for a few minutes. And yet she covered so much. And attempted I think to get out in front of what she thought some of the objections to her might but.

Brown Jackson: You may have read that I have one uncle who got caught up in the drug trade and received a life sentence. That is true. But law enforcement also runs in my family. In addition to my brother, I had two uncles who served decades as police officers, one of whom became the police chief in my home town of Miami, Florida.

Reign: Talking about her family, right? Talking about her background and her parents. I think it was all important. But just seeing her stand there. It felt like 2008 I guess, and seeing Barack Obama in Illinois standing out there in the cold with his wife and daughters. It really felt like a seismic shift. Because that will never happen again. She is the first. And hopefully she will not be the last. But it was an incredibly special moment.

Lee: Since the nomination, conservative lawmakers have criticized Judge Jackson for being too liberal. And while none have explicitly mentioned her race or gender, before she was nominated Republicans like Maine senator Susan Collins said Biden shouldn't have promised to pick a Black woman in the first place.

Susan Collins: I believe that diversity benefits the Supreme Court. But the way that the President has handled this nomination has been clumsy at best.

Lee: And at the end of January, Texas Senator Ted Cruz took it a step further on an episode of his podcast Verdict.

Ted Cruz: The fact that he's willing to make a promise at the outset that it must be a Black woman, I gotta say that's offensive.

Archival Recording: Right.

Cruz: You know--

Cruz: --Black women are, what, 6% of the U.S. population? (LAUGH) He's saying to 94% of Americans, "I don't get a damn about you. You are ineligible." It's also an insult to Black women. If he came and said, "I'm gonna put the best jurist on the court." And he looked at a number of people and he ended up nominating a Black woman, he could credibly say, "Okay, I'm nominating the person who's most qualified."

Lee: What do y'all have to say about that? April, what do you think?

Reign: I'm not sure how Senator Cruz thinks he can speak on behalf of Black women, because he is not one. So I think we can start there. It's not an insult to us. The adverse of what he's saying is that there are no qualified Black women, right? It is a cloaked argument about affirmative action.

But we know that the largest beneficiary of affirmative action in this country is white women. In the 233 years that we have had the Supreme Court, we have had 115 justices. Short of eight, I think, have been white men. And here we have something new and different.

And, you know, I understand that people are reticent to change. But it's time. It's overdue. And so these arguments, they're not dog whistles, right? Because we can all hear them. (LAUGH) We know what he's really trying to say. He is using a bullhorn to shoehorn his bigotry, unfortunately. And She Will Rise is ready to stand with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and fight off each one of these sort of spurious attacks.

Lee: But there's also a precedent for presidents saying they'll nominate a certain kind of person to the Supreme Court. And it's not from Democrats.

Ronald Reagan: I'm announcing today that one of the first Supreme Court vacancies in my administration will be filled by the most qualified woman I can possibly find.

Donald Trump: I will be putting forth a nominee next week. (CROWN NOISE) It will be a woman.

Lee: That was Ronald Reagan in 1982 and Donald Trump in September 2019. They both fulfilled their promises. And Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Amy Coney Barrett joined the Court. So for folks like Ted Cruz, it's not that they have a promise with presidents saying they're gonna nominate a woman.

The issue is with the idea of nominating a Black woman. How does that sit with you? Here we are in 2022, that we're still wrestling with this notion. Again, even though Black women bear so much of the burden of at least the Democratic party, but also carry the weight for so many other organizations. But still here we are with this kind of insulting language.

Tignor: Let's just be clear. This is a playbook that they have pulled out time and time and time again. You know, when Justice Sotomayor was nominated to service on the Supreme Court, she could go toe-to-toe as far as professional experience with any of those seated justices.

And I want to flag then President Obama never committed, he never said he was going to nominate the first Latina. He never said he was going to nominate a woman. Despite that, despite this woman's credentials, what was the first thing that we hear? Affirmative action and unqualified.

Reign: And it's unfortunate. Because if these people were not qualified (we're talking about everybody on the shortlist) it's a different conversation. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, when you look at her pedigree, where she's coming from, what she has accomplished in her time as an attorney and as a judge, and you hear these baseless attacks, which truly started before we even had a nominee, right? You know, it can't fall on deaf ears because we have to too much work the do. But we knew that this was coming. And so that's why we're ready and prepared to handle it.

Lee: So the Supreme Court is one thing. But I know She Will Rise has been advocating for appointments on lower courts as well. Why is that so important? Because sometimes I think we get locked into, like, the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court. But there are a lotta courts all across this country.

Reign: Well, you know, the Supreme Court is the court of last resort. There are a whole buncha courts you have to go through before you get there. And so we want those lived experiences of people of the global majority, especially Black women, on those courts as well.

Because it makes a difference. You know, when someone gets jacked up (LAUGH) and ends up before a judge, you know, you want someone who has a lived experience. Who can understand what's going on. And will think and use humanity and compassion.

And not just the rule of law when making those decisions. Because people's lives are in the balance. And so, as you mentioned, we do have a federal judicial tracker at where people can see how women are moving through the confirmation process.

Currently there are eight Black women who are waiting to be confirmed. And we will follow through with supporting them and seeing if there's anything that we can do to be helpful. Because the Supreme Court, there are only currently nine justices. But there are thousands of justices around the country. And they all deserve the sane type of support.

Tignor: The fact of the matter is, is that the judiciary has less than 2% Black women on it right now. And that's how we get to 2022 where we have yet to have a Black woman on the Supreme Court. You know, this is them impeding our judicial pipelines. And using these uncreative and baseless attacks against these women when they come out, despite their impeccable credentials and judicial records.

Lee: What's next? What's next in the fight for She Will Rise and having Judge Jackson's back? I mean, Judge Jackson's been nominated. Y'all showing up? Y'all showing out? (CHUCKLE) What's the next move? (LAUGHTER)

Reign: Both.

Lee: Not just showing up. Oh, wegonna show out too.

Tignor: Well, so we've been working with a number of our partners. We'll be doing some in person activations, rallies, getting folks energized. In honor of Women's History Month we're launching our social media campaign on Black women advocates across the country.

Whose lived experiences and missions are impacted by decisions on the Supreme Court. And we're using this as a way to not only lift up the amazing work of these women, but actually give folks an opportunity to understand why the judicial record of Ketanji Brown Jackson matters. Why her work in the community is so important. And the insights and perspectives that she'll be bringing to the Supreme Court. And how those impact our day-to-day life.

Reign: But we showing up too. (LAUGHTER) We will be there.

Tignor: And showing out.

Reign: Right.

Tignor: And showing out--

Reign: So, I mean, we are working on the ground in some states whose senators might be a little reticent to support the nominee. So we will have people there. But we will be there in D.C. as well to, as visual and very audible, support of Ketanji Brown Jackson as the confirmation process continues.

Lee: That shortlist had a number of brilliant, you know, accomplished Black women on it, right? But what excites each of you about this nominee, Judge Jackson? What is it about her that is especially exciting?

Reign: So I'm gonna be very superficial and say her sister locks give me (CHUCKLE) unbridled joy. Not only because I have them as well. But it is just, yeah, another symbol of Blackness, you know, that we don't often see on the bench. So that's important.

And then more substantively, the fact that she was a public defender. And represented indigent clients. You know, because it is a thankless job. It is not a job in which you will get rich. You know, it is a job that says that you believe in the community in which you're serving. And I think that's incredibly important as we have these conversations about what the pipeline looks like and how one ascends to the Supreme Court. So I think that's what's most important to me about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Lee: The way we physically show up matters, right? The space that we take up, right? And the way we move into the world matters also. Kim, what excites you about Judge Jackson?

Tignor: I think that what excited me the most, and that she just did so perfectly during her speech, is that she brings humanity and kindness. I think it is in her aura. And you can feel it as she talks and withreflecting on her life experience. I mean, it is the feeling that the Court is not this distant thing made up of justices that cannot relate at all to your day-to-day life.

She removed that. And she showed up as a complete person. As a mother. As a community advocate. I mean, this woman has done public service. I mean, it's just weaved into her life story in such a lovely way. And so, you know, it's that humanity that she brings to this moment and to her interactions that I think is just so wonderful and important.

Lee: My sisters, April, Kim, thank you very much. We really appreciate it.

Tignor: Thank you for having us.

Reign: Thanks for having us. This was great.

Lee: Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using the handle @intoamericapod. And you can tweet me @TrymaineLee. That's @TrymaineLee, my full name. If social media is not your thing, please write to us at that was intoamerica@nbc and the letters U-N-I dot com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.