By JESSICA GRESKO and COLLEEN LONG, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Sandra Day O’Connor was nervous when she joined the Supreme Court in 1981 as the nation’s first female justice.
“It’s nice to be the first to do something, but I didn’t want to be the last woman on the Supreme Court,” O’Connor said in 2012. “If I took the job and did a lousy job , it would take a long time to get another one, so it made me very nervous about that.
Now President Joe Biden is set to cast another woman in the role in a historic first on the court. Whoever he chooses as the first black female judge will instantly become a celebrity — and face a unique set of pressures.
Just being the new judge on the nine-member tribunal can be an adjustment. Judge Amy Coney Barrett recently described learning the job as “like learning to ride a bike with everyone watching you.” The court’s newest judge – the fifth woman in the court’s history – said in an appearance this month that “being a public figure is a lot of things to get used to”.
This will only be magnified for Biden’s candidate, who will immediately join the ranks of the court’s first.
Among them, Roger B. Taney was the court’s first Catholic, in 1836. Louis Brandeis was the court’s first Jewish member, in 1916. Thurgood Marshall was the court’s first black judge, in 1967. The judge Sonia Sotomayor became its first Latina judge in 2009.
Sotomayor acknowledged in a public appearance in 2018 that she felt the weight of being the only woman of color on the court, calling it a “very big burden” and “a big responsibility.”
“I think there is, for women in general, a need for role models,” she said, citing O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court’s second female judge, as having inspired her. leadership positions are not as common and certainly not as numerous.
Women, and especially black women, often feel the pressure to be the most qualified in the room to overcome the criticism and outsized questions about their fitness that they may attract.
“They have to be so perfect that they shield themselves from criticism,” said Maya Sen, a political scientist at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who studies issues of gender, race and law.
Sotomayor almost decided not to go through with his own court appointment. Deeply hurt by articles after her nomination suggesting she wasn’t smart enough and not very nice in the courtroom, she thought about opting out of the process. It was then, however, that a friend with an 8-year-old daughter told her, “It’s not about you, model. … This is about my daughter, who needs to see someone like her in a position of power. Sotomayor stayed.
Already, Democrats have created expectations around the candidate who has yet to be nominated.
Biden said he would choose “someone with extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki says she will have an “impeccable experience”. Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, among Democrats who met with Biden about the nomination earlier this month, said he expected the nominee to “really help unite the country.”
Some Republicans, including former Vice President Mike Pence, have criticized Biden’s promise to appoint a black woman to the court. Texas Senator Ted Cruz called it “offensive.”
Senate Democrats are expected to be able to confirm Biden’s nominee, but have said they would like to see bipartisan support for his pick. The top three contenders for the position are Ketanji Brown Jackson, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; California Supreme Court Member Leondra Kruger; and J. Michelle Childs, federal judge of South Carolina. Biden said he would announce his selection by the end of the month.
Marshall was already a legendary civil rights figure when he joined the court, which was just the latest in a series of historic accomplishments. Mark Tushnet, a former Marshall clerk who compiled a book of Marshall’s speeches and writings, said he doesn’t recall Justice ever specifically talking about being the first black person on the court.
Marshall has schools and courthouses named after him. In Sotomayor’s case, a public housing estate she lived in growing up was renamed in her honor. Marshall and Brandeis are among the judges the U.S. Postal Service has honored with stamps.
As for the mail in general, Biden’s soon-to-be justice can expect a lot — not just congratulations but also requests to speak. Sotomayor has bins and mail trays. O’Connor has trucks. The vast majority of writers were supportive, but a few men angry at O’Connor’s nomination sent in nude photos of themselves, author Evan Thomas wrote in his biography of her, “First.”
O’Connor largely ignored the crude protest. One of her sons, Jay O’Connor, said his mum’s response to any doubters was to jump into her job and make sure she was incredibly prepared.
Jay O’Connor said that even decades after his appointment, women in particular would approach his mother in public and tell her they remembered where they were when they heard the news that President Ronald Reagan had chosen her. They wanted her to know, he said, how significant this announcement meant to them.
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