When Kamala Harris made history in her 2020 vice presidential nomination acceptance speech, she broke into a huge grin as she conjured up her heroine’s name: Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to serve as a federal judge.
Eighteen months later, Motley’s memory was invoked again, this time by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson after her appointment to the Supreme Court.
The parallels are hardly accidental. A pioneering attorney and jurist, Motley is a natural inspiration shared by Harris, a former prosecutor who became the first black and South Asian woman to become a vice president, and Brown, who is poised to become the first black woman judge on the highest court the nation. The rise of both to their historic offices reflects the outsized and enduring influence of Motley and a handful of other civil rights attorneys such as Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston.
“When you see them, you see the generation of black lawyers before them, many of whom have gone largely unheralded,” said Nicole Holley-Walker, dean of Howard University School of Law. As a first-generation member to follow the civil rights movement, she said, “We all had very common role models because there weren’t very many people before us.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on Jackson’s confirmation Monday and will likely be stuck, though Democrats will still be able to bring their nomination to the full Senate for final approval.
The attorneys most frequently cited by Jackson, 50, and Harris, 57, were all involved in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools. Marshall, the lead attorney, later became the first Black Supreme Court Justice. Houston was Marshall’s mentor and key architect of the strategy to abolish legalized segregation in advance of Brown. Motley, a protege of Marshall, was the first black woman to argue in court and was called to the federal judiciary in 1966.
The frequent mentions of these legal icons have served Harris and Jackson in many ways. Both women refer to their role models to explain their own motivations for public service and how they approach their current jobs. The calls provide learning opportunities for listeners unfamiliar with these advocates and serve as a kind of shorthand for those who do.
For Jackson, Motley’s legacy was a recurring theme in the nomination process. In her first speech as President Biden’s nominee, she took pains to point out that she was born exactly 49 years to the day after Motley. She discovered this fact in law school when she later said, “Secretly at this point I thought, maybe I want to be a judge.”
Motley’s name appeared a dozen times in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings led by Jackson and fellow Democratic senators.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, fond of pointing out that Motley is a daughter of his native state of Connecticut, observed, “She was overwhelmingly responsible for Brown and the Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall got most of the credit, but she did a lot of the work. Probably sounds familiar to you.”
Motley may not be as well known as other civil rights activists, but she was a star for the women of Jackson’s generation.
“I think every little black girl who wants to be a lawyer knew about Constance Baker Motley,” said Njeri Mathis Rutledge, who was friends with Jackson when they attended Harvard University and now teaches law at the South Texas College of Law. “I vividly remember looking up at her and admiring her and feeling like if she could do it, so could I.”
While Motley and her cohort weren’t credited by name, their legacy played a big part in the hearings, including some of the more antagonistic moments. Republicans used Jackson’s history as a public defender to suggest that she was lenient with crime, a charge also leveled against Marshall, the last judge with extensive experience representing defendants.
And 55 years after Mississippi Senator James Eastland bluntly asked Marshall, “Do you have prejudice against white people in the South?” Jackson faced similarly provocative questions about race — most famously from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz about an anti-racist children’s book: “Do you agree with this book that teaches children that babies are racist?”
When Jackson was repeatedly asked to describe her legal philosophy, observers discovered the influence of her civil rights predecessors in her response.
“When she explains how she sees the law, it’s very much within that tradition of understanding the tools that the law gives you, to understand the facts of the case … from a neutral position,” Holley-Walker said, adding That Jackson emphasized on the legal foundations is reminiscent of the Brown vs. Board attorneys, who were “serious legal engineers.”
Harris, on the other hand, refers to her idols as a triad and repeats them so often it’s almost like a mantra: Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, Constance Baker Motley. They were mentioned in both of her memoirs and in countless campaign speeches as inspiration for her law studies.
“That tells me she knows her history — the history of the civil rights movement,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a Harvard law professor and author of Civil Rights Queen, a newly published biography of Motley.
Harris has shown special reverence for Marshall; She was sworn in as vice president on a Bible that once belonged to him and displays a bust of the late judge in her ceremonial office.
But more generally, she speaks of the trio of attorneys who were the “heroes of my youth,” Harris said in a 2019 speech to the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. “These individuals who had the ability to translate passion from the streets into our country’s courtrooms.”
She considers that admiration to be an integral part of her biography, particularly after becoming an undergraduate at Howard University, the historically black institution where Houston once headed the law school and Marshall was a highly revered graduate student.
“There was constant talk about the Howard legacy,” said Lita Rosario, a classmate who recruited Harris to join the university’s debate team. “The symbolism of someone like Thurgood Marshall [was] You can be if you stay. … It is a journey of excellence and you have to live up to this claim.”
The environment was vastly different when Harris transferred to San Francisco law school at UC Hastings, which at the time had a reputation as an elite old-boys club, and minority law students often faced alienation.
“We’ve all felt this culture shock,” said Diane Matsuda, a friend from Harris law school who is now an attorney in San Francisco. “It was the first time I really felt this racism.”
Shauna Marshall, who tutored Maya Harris, the vice president’s younger sister, in Stanford law, said the transition may have been particularly abrupt for Harris.
“Coming from Howard, you feel like you belong everywhere,” said Marshall, who later worked with Harris, then-San Francisco District Attorney, on a pilot anti-recidivism program. “I am sure that these role models and luminaries really made a significant contribution [Harris] keep an eye on the price.”
Her influence on her carried over into her early years as a front-line prosecutor, said Darryl Stallworth, who worked with Harris as freshman attorneys in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.
“We’ve had a lot of talks when we spoke about the legacy and responsibility of passing on the torch — the opportunities we had based on everything our ancestors had done,” said Stallworth, now a criminal defense attorney in Oakland. He said they shared the belief that the best way to change the criminal justice system is to reform it from within.
Harris has often cited these attorneys as part of her decision to become a prosecutor — a move she said was met with skepticism by her family. None of the three attorneys she often references were prosecutors themselves, but Brown-Nagin said Harris likely drew inspiration from her work exposing abuses in the criminal justice system.
Her law enforcement experience later caused friction with some Democratic primary voters, and Harris seemed at times unsure how to talk about it. She relied on the references to these civil rights activists as a rhetorical device, particularly for black audiences.
“There’s a way you have to telegraph, ‘Yes, I’m in that position of power. Yes, sometimes I have to make tough compromises. But my North Star is still the North Star of my people,'” said Marshall, who is now a law professor at UC Hastings. “That’s a great way to get it across, just calling these people by name.”
Harris would also purposely name-check the attorneys in front of a mostly white audience.
“She was trying to pull her out of the dark a little bit,” said Sean Clegg, a former Senior Advisor. “Many times – always with curiosity and support – many white people found themselves Googling these names. That’s positive. It’s good.”
After decades of drawing on the legacy of black legal pioneers, Harris is now part of the government that will add a new name to this list of “firsts.” Jackson is expected to be confirmed with votes from the entire Democratic faction and at least one Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine. The final vote in the Senate holds the possibility of a moment of symbolic symmetry: the first black female vice president to chair, the first black woman, to be confirmed on the Supreme Court.
“There are guys like Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall that we’ve looked up to over the years. And now it’s our turn,” said Rosario, Harris’ Howard classmate who is now an entertainment attorney in Washington.
“Kamala is standing in these shoes,” she added. “Judge Jackson stands in those shoes.”
https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-04-04/kamala-harris-ketanji-brown-jackson-civil-rights-lawyers Civil rights attorneys are role models for Jackson and Harris