In 1981, Amalya Kearse became the first black woman to appear on a presidential list for a vacant High Court post.
Judge Amalya Lyle Kearse, a black woman from Vauxhall, New Jersey, was within reach of a Supreme Court nomination 41 years ago. And 35 years ago. And 31 years ago. And 28 years ago.
In 1981, Kearse became the first black woman to appear on a presidential list for a vacant High Court post, a peak she reached three more times over the next 13 years. She would have been the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court if Presidents Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush or Bill Clinton had chosen her from a small group of possible candidates.
Kearse is 84, so his window has closed. On Friday, President Joe Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson, 51, fulfilling a campaign promise to nominate a black woman for the first time. Legal observers, lawyers and authors who spoke with Forbes said Kearse’s story shows how black women, no matter how qualified, have long been overlooked when it came to opportunities to hold one of America’s most powerful positions.
“When I think about what we’ve lost over the last few decades by not having a black woman’s perspective on this Supreme Court, it’s worse for the law and worse for the country,” Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, says Forbes.
Speaking of Kearse, she added, “This is one of many stories of black women whose qualifications and experience have not been recognized as fully as they should have been.”
Kearse is currently a senior judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, based in Manhattan. She’s been there since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter nominated her amid a broader effort to diversify the federal bench. Kearse did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
Kearse is the first black female judge to serve on a federal appeals court, according to the Howard Law Journal. On the Second Circuit, she served as the first female justice and the second black justice behind eventual Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Kearse was recognized as the first black woman on a Supreme Court shortlist in the 2020 book Shortlisted: Women in the Shadow of the Supreme Court by law professors Renee Knake Jefferson and Hannah Brenner Johnson.
Here is Kearse’s story as a potential Supreme Court nominee:
- Reagan put Kearse on his shortlist in 1981 when he pledged to appoint the first woman to the high court. He ultimately chose Sandra Day O’Connor, a white woman.
- In 1987, Reagan considered Kearse for the seat vacated by Judge Lewis Powell, but instead nominated Robert Bork, a white man. Bork’s application was rejected by the Senate and Reagan ultimately chose Anthony Kennedy, a white man, who served on the High Court until 2018.
- In 1991, Kearse’s name resurfaced when Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas, a black man, appeared in jeopardy when he was accused of sexual harassment. One of Kearse’s colleagues, Judge Jon O. Newman, wrote a New York Times editorial calling on Thomas to step down and Bush to appoint Kearse. Thomas was later confirmed and marked 30 years on the high court last fall.
- In 1994, Clinton had Kearse on her shortlist for the seat vacated by Justice Harry Blackmun. Clinton chose Stephen Breyer, whose retirement paves the way for Brown Jackson.
Kearse has not sat squarely in either political camp, having been on the shortlist for two Republican presidents and one Democrat, and having been chosen for the federal bench by a Democratic president.
A 1991 Los Angeles Times article described Kearse as a “moderate Republican”, but noted her views on some social issues, including her 1989 dissent which advocated the right to receive abortion information from federally funded clinics. the the wall street journal reported in 1993 that Kearse was a Supreme Court favorite among prominent lawyers, “regarded by Republicans as a cautious judge well-versed in securities matters, and Democrats note that she has not afraid to take their side on social issues.”
Receiving that kind of bipartisan support didn’t help Kearse secure a Supreme Court nomination, said Leslie Davis, CEO of the National Association of Minority and Women-Owned Law Firms. Forbes.
“I think that says a lot that even when you have support from both sides, if there’s no intentional effort,” a named black woman “may very well not happen,” said Davis said.
It’s unclear how close Kearse came to being nominated, said Jefferson, one of the book’s authors. She said it’s also difficult to determine the exact number of times each woman appeared on a shortlist, but that Kearse “was one of the few who appeared multiple times in our research.”
Kearse’s mother was a doctor and poverty relief official and his father was a postmaster. She is a 1959 alumnus of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where a course in international law aroused his interest by becoming a litigator.
She graduated with honors from the University of Michigan Law School in 1962 and joined New York-based Hughes, Hubbard & Reed. Seven years later, she was elected a partner there, making her the first black woman to reach that level at a major Wall Street law firm.
Kearse is a world-class bridge player, winning seven American Bridge Association championships and five North American bridge championships. She has written, edited, and translated books about the game, which her parents first taught her to play in high school.
Carter appointed Kearse and six other black women to federal judgeships during his single term, according to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. Before Carter became president, only 10 of the previous 1,824 lifetime federal judge appointments went to a womansaid the US Courts Administrative Office.
“As Malcolm X said, the black woman has been the most disrespectful, unprotected, and neglected person in America,” said civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Forbes. “We’ll see if that’s true at those Senate confirmation hearings.”