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Black women in the legal profession reflect on how long it's taken to get this far


President Biden has promised to nominate a Black woman to fill retiring Justice Stephen Breyer's seat on the Supreme Court. That historic first has Black women in the legal profession reflecting on how long it's taken to get this far. NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: LaDoris Cordell knows a little something about being the first Black woman on the bench.

LADORIS CORDELL: I was asked, pointedly, when I was appointed, well, how - you know, maybe you just got appointed because you're Black.

DIRKS: In 1982, she became the first Black woman judge in Northern California.

CORDELL: And my response is, I would rather be appointed because I'm Black than not be appointed because I'm Black.

DIRKS: Cordell says it's taken too long for a Black woman justice on the Supreme Court - 233 years, 115 appointed justices, only five women, only three people of color. Cordell believes deeply in the founding principles of America - that we're created equal, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But...

CORDELL: Those principles were promulgated by white, propertied men. They did not intend those principles to apply to women, to apply to poor people or to apply to people of color.

DIRKS: Cordell says that's why it matters that there be a Black woman justice, because it moves the nation a little closer to fulfilling its promise, something she's tried to do in her own work.

MARGARET RUSSELL: LaDoris Cordell is - she's the first Black judge I ever met.

DIRKS: Margaret Russell says meeting Cordell helped inspire her to go into law. She now teaches law at Santa Clara University. Russell is Black and Japanese American, and she says you can't underestimate the power of envisioning yourself in power.

RUSSELL: When you see someone after an entire life of never seeing anyone who looks like you, it transforms your idea of the possibilities of what that institution could be and of what you, as a person, can be.

DIRKS: Russell says she's got no illusions about the impact of a single Black woman justice. Biden's nominee will join a court with a conservative supermajority that seems intent on overturning major civil rights rulings.

RUSSELL: In terms of actually affecting decisions in these momentous cases coming up, I think it's not going to happen.

DIRKS: Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, says she's hoping for the day when an appointment like this isn't considered history-making.

TOMIKO BROWN-NAGIN: If we can get to a point where it's not so significant that a Black woman is appointed to some prestigious position, then we will have come closer to the dream of equality that so many civil rights activists and lawyers fought for for so many years.

DIRKS: Brown-Nagin warns against summing up whoever is nominated by just their race and gender because it diminishes their remarkable accomplishments and because it creates this false impression that someone will rule a certain way just because they're Black.

BROWN-NAGIN: Black district court judges, for instance, do not actually decide cases in ways that would suggest that race is a driver, a motivating factor in outcomes.

DIRKS: Diversity alone will not change a system. So when it comes to representation, how much is enough to create meaningful change? Here's law professor Margaret Russell again.

RUSSELL: Ruth Bader Ginsburg answered to the question of how many women justices did she think would be the right number and enough. And she said nine (laughter). And, no - I mean, it's never enough in the sense that we're never going to really catch up and remedy centuries of racism and sexism. I'm really afraid that we're going to lose ground and go backwards.

DIRKS: This appointment, itself, is still a giant step forward, Russell says. Representation is hugely meaningful, but it also has limits. Sandhya Dirks, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.