The Legacy of Black Judges in America

Federal judges are crucial to the preservation of our democracy and the rule of law. The decisions made by our federal judges have resounding impacts on our everyday lives and our civil rights. To ensure equal justice under the law, it is essential that our judiciary reflects the diversity of our nation.

Given the power and influence wielded by federal judges, professional diversity and lived experience is essential to ensuring our courts reflect our nation and live up to the promise of equal justice for all. The prospect of having more judges with first-hand experience defending civil rights is critical to our future.

From Thurgood Marshall, to Constance Baker Motley, and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Black judges have made history and broken barriers to build a diverse judiciary and defend civil rights. Today, our federal courts are more diverse than ever before, but there is still work to be done. As we look toward a new generation of judges, we honor the brilliant jurists who paved the way.

Black Judges and Trailblazers

Thurgood Marshall

LDF Founder and Director-Counsel, and First Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice, confirmed 1967

Constance Baker Motley

First woman LDF Attorney, First Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court and First Black woman Federal Judge, appointed 1966.

Ketanji Brown Jackson

First Black Woman U.S. Supreme Court Justice, confirmed 2021

Natasha Merle

Eastern District of New York Judge; LDF Deputy Director of Litigation

Thurgood Marshall

LDF Founder and First Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice

Known colloquially and affectionately as “Mr. Civil Rights,” Thurgood Marshall was the leading architect of the strategy that ended state-sponsored segregation. Marshall founded LDF in 1940, serving as its first Director-Counsel. He became the first black Supreme Court Justice when he was confirmed by the Senate on August 30, 1967. 

Marshall was the key strategist in the effort to end racial segregation, in particular meticulously challenging Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court-sanctioned legal doctrine that called for “separate but equal” structures. Marshall won a series of court decisions that gradually struck down that doctrine, ultimately leading to Brown v. Board of Education, which he argued before the Supreme Court in 1952 and 1953, finally overturning “separate but equal” and acknowledging that segregation greatly diminished students’ self-esteem. Asked by Justice Felix Frankfurter during the argument what he meant by “equal,” Mr. Marshall replied, “Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place.”

Marshall constantly traveled to small, dusty, scorching courtrooms throughout the South at one point, overseeing as many as 450 simultaneous cases. Among other major victories, he successfully challenged whites-only primary elections in Texas in addition to a case in which the Supreme Court declared that restrictive covenants that barred Black people from buying or renting homes could not be enforced in state courts. He eventually became the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Marshall’s status as a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement is confirmed and upheld by LDF and other organizations that strive to uphold the principles of civil rights and racial justice. His legacy cannot be overstated: he worked diligently and tirelessly to end what was America’s official doctrine of separate-but-equal. 

Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker-Motley

First woman LDF Attorney, First Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court and First Black woman Federal Judge

LDF’s first female attorney, Constance Baker Motley rose to prominence as the chief courtroom strategist of the civil rights movement.  Motley was a key architect in the fight for desegregation in the South. From 1945 to 1964, Motley worked on all of the major school desegregation cases brought by LDF. She was the first Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court and went on to win nine out of ten cases.

Constance Baker Motley wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education. She led the litigation of the case that integrated the University of Georgia and directed the legal campaign that resulted in the admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962, paving the way for the integration of universities across the south.

Motley became the first Black woman to serve in the New York State Senate and the first woman to serve as Manhattan Borough President. When President Johnson appointed her to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, she became the first Black woman to sit as a federal judge.

Motley claimed her greatest professional achievement was the reinstatement of 1,100 Black children in Birmingham who had been expelled for taking part in street demonstrations in the spring of 1963. Motley faced the danger of her work head-on — from driving through Ku Klux Klan territory to defend the right of Black students to attend the University of Georgia to spending hours in county jails across the deep South helping to secure the release of detained civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr.
 

Ketanji Brown-Jackson

First Black Woman U.S. Supreme Court Justice

On June 30, 2022, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the newest Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, making her the first Black woman to ever serve on the nation’s highest judicial body. 

Since she was nominated to serve on the Supreme Court, LDF has been an ardent supporter of Justice Jackson and has defended her exemplary record. LDF released a report evaluating the record of United States Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, in keeping with our longstanding tradition of outlining the background, judicial philosophy, and judicial record of Supreme Court nominees, with a focus on the nominee’s record on civil rights and racial justice issues.  

Justice Jackson previously worked as a public defender, served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and served as a federal judge before being nominated to the Supreme Court. Her demonstrates a range of legal experience, professional excellence, and commitment to fundamental fairness and equal justice under the law. 

Her work as a public defender and in private practice, service on the United States Sentencing Commission, and tenure as a federal judge, made clear that Judge Jackson has the range of legal experience, demonstrated professional excellence, and commitment to fundamental fairness required of the next Supreme Court justice. 

Eastern District of New York Judge

On June 21, 2023, LDF’s Deputy Director of Litigation Natasha Merle was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. She was nominated in 2022 by President Biden. LDF has been advocating for her confirmation since she was nominated and has sent letters to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of her nomination.

Ms. Merle has served at LDF since 2016, most recently as Deputy Director of Litigation, and is the first attorney since LDF’s founder Thurgood Marshall, to be confirmed directly from the LDF to the federal bench. She is the first public defender to serve on this Court in nearly 30 years, and only the second judge in the Court’s history to ever serve as a public defender. She is also the sixth Black judge in the EDNY. 

At LDF, Ms. Merle has proven to be an exceptional civil rights litigator, deeply committed to the protection of democracy. She has practiced before federal and state courts at every level throughout the country, including before the U.S. Supreme Court; served as co-lead counsel in cases challenging restrictive voting policies amid the COVID-19 pandemic, issues of vote dilution, and violations of the Voting Rights Act. She is also a member of the Buck v. Davis team, which successfully represented Mr. Duane Buck in the United States Supreme Court. She co-authored the briefs that resulted in the reversal of Mr. Buck’s death sentence. 

As a civil rights attorney, Ms. Merle has dedicated her career to public service and ensuring people have access to justice. Her record is impeccable. Hers is a much-needed voice on the federal bench.

Ms. Merle and U.S. Senator Cory Booker during Ms. Merle's nomination hearing.

Public defenders play a vital role in protecting due process and American democracy – and we laud the President for recognizing the importance of having attorneys with this perspective reflected in our nation’s courts, with this and other judicial nominations. Ms. Merle’s experience representing the most vulnerable members of our society will provide a valuable and critically needed perspective to judicial decision making.  

Advancing Judicial Diversity

The Biden administration has set records for judicial diversity. Of the 100 judges confirmed by the Senate in the last two years, three-quarters of them are women, and two-thirds were people of color. Nearly half of the appointees — including Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson — are women of color. The list of judges confirmed under Biden includes 11 Black women to serve as appellate judges, more than those installed on the nation’s second-highest courts under all previous presidents combined. Before Biden, there were only 8 black circuit judges. None were nominated by the Trump administration. About one-third of Biden’s confirmed judges have experience as public defenders and a dozen are former civil rights lawyers.

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Judges confirmed under Biden

90+

Current vacancies

Judges of Color Confirmed Under Biden

16%

% People of color confirmed by Trump

36%

% People of color confirmed by Obama

Women Judges Confirmed Under Biden

24%

% Women confirmed by Trump

36%

% Women confirmed by Obama

Nancy Abudu

Confirmed to the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

On May 19, 2023, Nancy Adubu was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve on the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. LDF strongly advocated for her confirmation. She is the first Black woman to serve on the Eleventh Circuit.

Ms. Abudu has dedicated her career to safeguarding the right to vote and strengthening democracy. Her confirmation will bring much-needed expertise and perspective to the Eleventh Circuit. Ms. Abudu’s extensive record defending the civil rights and civil liberties of all demonstrates her profound commitment to equal justice under the law. Her record of litigation demonstrates a rigorous work ethic, a commitment to public service, and an unwavering commitment to justice that make her well-suited for judicial service. Moreover, Ms. Abudu’s extensive courtroom experience in all facets of litigation renders her eminently qualified to serve on the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. 

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Pending Nominations

The Work is not Over

Judicial Nominees Waiting to Be Confirmed

In June 2023, at least 27 judicial nominations are pending. Twenty-five are women — 18 of whom are women of color. 

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