October 4, 2022
Last Friday, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson participated in a quietly joyous investiture ceremony, the final formal hurdle before her first term on the Supreme Court begins this week. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris attended, as did members of Jackson’s family. (Her husband, Dr. Patrick Jackson, raised his sock game significantly for the occasion.)
But now, the work begins.
Jackson joins the court at a time when trust and public confidence in the institution are at all-time lows. A new Gallup poll shows a record-high of 58% of U.S. adults saying they disapprove of the job the Supreme Court is doing, with only 25% of Americans expressing confidence in the court, down from 36% in 2021. These are the worst numbers in 50 years of polling, driven largely by last term’s decisions on guns, environmental policy, the separation of church and state, and the dismantling of abortion rights.
Looking ahead, gird what’s girdable, say experts.
“It’s hard to imagine a Supreme Court term worse than last year’s when the Court’s conservative wing overturned Roe v. Wade—and a number of other settled precedents—just because they could,” writes Jessica Mason Pielko, a former litigator and co-host, along with Imani Gandi, of the excellent Boom! Lawyered podcast. “I’m here to tell you this term will be worse.”
This week, the court began a nine-month term. On the docket are cases involving re-districting, college admissions, and adoption—specifically, striking down part of a law that favors Native American parents in adoption cases involving Native American children.
At the heart of deliberations will be the concept of “race-neutral” interpretations of the law and a return to influence of Chief Justice John Roberts, who has long supported the idea of a “colorblind Constitution.”
Alabama will be the first to test the race-neutral waters of the new court.
In Merrill v. Milligan, the justices will consider whether the state has violated key elements of the Voting Rights Act by reconfiguring its Congressional districts to purposefully dilute Black representation. Alabama’s Black population hovers at about 27% but comprises the majority in only one of seven congressional districts. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund civil rights attorney Deuel Ross, who has been part of the case since its earliest days, is making his Supreme Court debut. Alabama “is the birthplace of the Voting Rights Act and in some ways the birthplace of the civil rights movement,” Ross told Bloomberg Law. “And yet, in a lot of ways, it has been left behind” because of lack of representation.
While it does not seem hard to predict how this majority-conservative bench will lean on these issues, there is hope that Jackson’s presence, even in the minority, will fuel legal counterpunching efforts.
“We have Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a brilliant jurist, powerful communicator, and the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Her addition to the bench, and the dissents she will author, will help shape a new progressive legal movement that will rebuild from this backlash,” says Pielko.
That’s a lot of pressure on one Black woman, a position familiar to many in corporate life. And while social scientists have argued persuasively that colorblind approaches to leadership and policy-making do not work—at least not for underrepresented populations seeking redress, equity, or just trying to get through their workdays unscathed—ignoring this evidence is also business as usual.
And that’s a deadly problem.
The real-world consequences of retrograde thinking on race have left innovation, profits, and justice on the table in corporate life for decades. With this much at stake in the lives of ordinary people, it’s a precedent the Supreme Court should consider.
This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.