Sherrilyn Ifill For the United States Supreme Court
The judicial landscape in America has become so right-wing conservative that it is in dire need of a Supreme Court Justice who will return the ideological balance to the court conspicuously absent since the retirement of Mr. Justice Marshall in 1991. It is true that the appointment will not change the 6-3 right-wing majority but it can with the right appointment provide a voice that may be able to influence the direction of the Court even if only in dissent.
President Biden now has the opportunity to nominate the next justice to the high court after the resignation of Associate Justice Stephen Breyer. He has promised that his nominee will become the first African American female to be so honored. Admittedly President Biden has an abundance of excellent choices to pick from. A shortlist has a wealth of excellent candidates to choose from. Several names have been mentioned and one even has the unabashed backing of the House Majority Whip.
But let us not be hasty. As African Americans, we have a duty to be heard on this appointment. Dare I say it? As African Americans, we should have the right to advise and consent. I write this because I believe that among the constellation of qualified African American females who might be chosen, one shines brightest. She is Sherrilyn Ifill. A lawyer, law professor, and lifelong advocate for the rights of African Americans in the tradition of the late Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Before I provide further information about her background and experience for those who are not familiar with her, I would like to set forth some information about the position of Supreme Court Justice itself.
We must begin by asking ourselves who would we like to see on the court? Who would be best suited to represent our interests on the most conservative court in recent history and at a time when our gains in the area of civil and human rights, criminal justice, and voting rights are daily being assaulted at the state and federal level?
First, what are the qualifications for appointment to the highest court in the land? There are no constitutional qualifications for Supreme Court Justices. That means that Justices do not have to be American born or of a certain age, no particular level of education or training in any particular profession is required. Supreme Court justices are therefore not required to have a law degree or legal training for that matter or to have any judicial experience – state or federal. In fact, nine justices John Marshall, William Rehnquist (appointed Chief Justice), Lewis Powell Jr, Abe Fortas, Earl Warren, William Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Louis Brandeis, and current Associate Justice Elena Kagan, had no judicial experience at all.
But in this case and at this time historical background should weigh heavily in our choice. The late Thurgood Marshall was the first African American appointed to the Court. He served for 24 years until his retirement in 1991. He along with others of equal legal stature such as Charles H. Houston Robert L. Carter and Constance Baker Motley fought virtually his entire adult life to strategically dismantle segregation in all its forms and manifestations brick by brick from universities and law schools to local school districts and to bring a close to the era of the white primary. “He was the principal architect of the strategy of using the courts to provide what the political system would not: a definition of equality that assured black Americans the full rights of citizenship.” He won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court. And 13 of the 19 cases he argued as Solicitor General of the United States. He founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational fund in 1940 and served as its first Director Counsel for 20 years. His replacement was Clarence Thomas.
I mention these things to show that no one has represented the interests of African Americans from an African American background and perspective on the Court since 1991. This is important because to argue at this late date that the Court is not a political institution is so blatantly inaccurate as to be deceitful. The Supreme Court is now and has always been political.
Since 1967 and after the few advancements we have witnessed are being reversed almost daily. The judicial and political climates have grown more uncertain with the passage of time. None will deny the deep political and racial polarization in this country since the election of Donald Trump and his successful appointment of 226 federal court judges 54 of them to the United States Courts of Appeals, the court of last resort for the majority of federal cases. And, of course, three of the sitting Supreme Court Justices.
The Time Is Right
The time calls for the appointment of someone to fill the vacuum left by the retirement of Justice Marshall. It calls for a person who understands the struggle of African Americans as no white person can. Such a person cannot be mere window dressing. This person must be a person invested in the judicial system and not divorced from our centuries-old struggle for justice and equality.
We need someone who has demonstrated her commitment to fight for justice and equality within the legal arena not in sound bites but in fighting on the front lines everyday without fear or favor. We need someone who has not come recently to our cause but has been an advocate and defender of it for all her life. Because our cause is the fight for fundamental fairness and time is of the essence. With due respect to all the potential nominees, Sherrilyn Ifill’s background and credentials were made for this time.
“Sherrilyn Ifill is the [former] President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), Ifill began her career as a Fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, before joining the staff of the LDF as an Assistant Counsel in 1988, where she litigated voting rights cases for five years.”
“In 1993 Ifill left LDF to join the faculty at University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. Over 20 years, Ifill taught civil procedure and constitutional law to thousands of law students and pioneered a series of law clinics, including one of the earliest law clinics in the country, focused on challenging legal barriers to the reentry of ex-offenders. Ifill is also a prolific scholar who has published academic articles in leading law journals, and op-eds and commentaries in leading newspapers. Her 2007 book “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” was highly acclaimed, and is credited with laying the foundation for contemporary conversations about lynching and reconciliation. A 10th-anniversary edition of the book was recently released with a Foreword by Bryan Stevenson, the acclaimed lawyer and founder of the national lynching memorial in Montgomery, AL”.
In 2013, Ifill was invited back to the Legal Defense Fund – this time to lead the organization as its 7th Director-Counsel. In that role, Ifill has increased the visibility and engagement of the organization in litigating cutting-edge and urgent civil rights issues and elevating the organization’s decades-long leadership fighting voter suppression, inequity in education, and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. At critical moments during national political and civil rights crises, Ifill’s voice and vision have powerfully influenced our national dialogue. Ifill is a frequent public commentator on racial justice issues, known for her fact-based, richly contextualized analysis of complex racial issues. She is a trusted and valued advisor to civic and community leaders, national civil rights colleagues, and business leaders.
In 2020, Ifill was named one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year for her leadership of LDF, especially during a year that saw constant attacks on our democracy and nationwide protests against police violence in Black communities. Glamour called Ifill an “unrelenting champion with a stellar reputation among civil rights leaders.” Ifill was also named the 2020 Attorney of the Year by The American Lawyer and was honored with a 2021 Spirit of Excellence Award by the American Bar Association.
Ifill graduated from Vassar College in 1984 with a B.A. in English and earned her J.D. from New York University School of Law in 1987. She has received honorary doctorates from New York University, Bard College, Fordham Law School, and CUNY Law School. In 2019, Ifill was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In 2020, she was named Attorney of the Year by The American Lawyer and was a 2020 Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year. In 2021, Ifill was appointed to President Biden’s Commission on the Supreme Court. She serves on the boards of the Learning Policy Institute, the NYU Law School of Trustees, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Profiles in Courage Advisory Board.”
We cannot do better than Sherrilyn Ifill. I implore President Biden to nominate her as the next Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The time is right.