Kamala Harris’ election to the vice presidency has, in her words, broken “one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country.” In post-election public remarks, Harris thanked the generations of women who paved the way for her success, including “the Black women who are, often, too often overlooked but who so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.” The Biden administration will likely have another barrier-shattering opportunity—appointing a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A Black woman has never been nominated to the highest court. According to the book “Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court,” President Ronald Reagan was first to place a Black woman on a Supreme Court shortlist, Judge Amalya Lyle Kearse of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Today, Kearse, who has served four distinguished decades on the bench, is one of only five Black women judges out of 179 currently confirmed to the federal circuit courts of appeal—where 12 of the last 13 Supreme Court justices were drawn. At the district level, there are only 42 Black women judges out of 673. To make matters worse, in the last four years, only two Black women have been appointed to the federal bench out of almost 200 federal appointments (approximately 1/5 of the federal judiciary). This underrepresentation of Black women in the federal judiciary is not due to a lack of talent but, rather, due to a lack of imagination and political will among those in power. As Harris explained, Black women are “too often overlooked.”
Biden’s selection process need not be limited to the federal judiciary, particularly given the alarming scarcity of Black women federal judges. Instead, it should be expansive, including a variety of individuals with the requisite qualifications. We offer the following collection of impeccably credentialed and widely published Black women law professors.
Robin Lenhardt is a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. She was formerly a professor of law and director of the Center on Race, Law and Justice atFordham University School of Law. She holds degrees from Brown University, Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Law School and Georgetown Law. She clerked for Justice Stephen G. Breyer and Judge Hugh Bownes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit . She litigated cases for Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (currently known as Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr), including as a member of the team that defended the University of Michigan in the Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger affirmative action cases. Her scholarly expertise is in constitutional law, civil rights law and family law.
Michelle Adams is a professor of law and the co-director of the Floersheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She holds degrees from Brown University, the City University of New York School of Law and Harvard Law School. Adams clerked for U.S. District Magistrate Judge James C. Francis IV of the Southern District of New York and served for three years as a staff attorney at the New York Legal Aid Society in the Civil Appeals and Law Reform Unit. Her research efforts are focused on on race discrimination, school desegregation and affirmative action. She identifies as part of the LGBT community.
Monica Bell is an associate professor of law and an associate professor of sociology at Yale University. She holds degrees from Furman University, the University of Dublin, Harvard and Yale, where she served as an editor for the Yale Law Journal, the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, and the Yale Journal of International Law. Bell clerked for U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie of the District of South Carolina, and as South Carolina’s political director for John Edwards for President. Bell’s areas of expertise include criminal justice, welfare law, qualitative research methods and law and sociology. She has written several award-winning articles in law and sociology.
Renee McDonald Hutchins is dean and professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. She holds degrees from Spelman College and Yale Law School, where she was chair of the Moot Court board of directors. Hutchins clerked for Judge Nathaniel R. Jones of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Following more than a decade-long career in trial and appellate practice litigation, Hutchins turned to training law students, teaching in both clinical programs and traditional doctrinal courses. She is a leading expert on Fourth Amendment law and criminal appellate practice, and the intersection of criminal procedure and social science. She is a member of the American Law Institute.
Suzette Malveaux is provost professor of civil rights law and director of the Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law at the University of Colorado Law School. She holds degrees from Harvard University and New York University School of Law, where she served on the NYU Law Review. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Robert L. Carter of the Southern District of New York, and practiced law with Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll (currently known as Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll) and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs. Malveaux litigated major civil rights class actions, including before the Supreme Court, for eight years. She represented over 1.5 million women plaintiffs in Walmart v. Dukes and served as pro bono counsel to plaintiffs victimized by the 1921 Tulsa race riots. Malveaux writes at the intersection of civil procedure and civil rights law. She is a member of the American Law Institute.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig is dean and professor of law at Boston University School of Law. She is the first Black woman to serve as the dean of a top 20 law school. She holds degrees from Grinnell College and the University of Michigan, where she was an editor on the Michigan Law Review and founding member of the Michigan Journal of Race and the Law. She also holds advanced degrees in Sociology and African American studies from Yale University. Onwuachi-Willig clerked for U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. of the Northern District of Ohio and Judge Karen Nelson Moore of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. She practiced labor and employment law as an associate at Jones Day and Foley Hoag. A renowned expert in critical race theory, employment discrimination law, and family law, Onwuachi-Willig is a prolific author, having written more than 50 published works. She recently ranked fourth on the Law Professor Impact Survey, voted on by law professors nation-wide. She is a member of the American Law Institute and a former finalist for the Supreme Court of Iowa.
Dorothy Roberts is the George A. Weiss University professor of law and sociology, the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander professor of civil rights, and a professor of Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also founding director of the Penn Program on Race, Science and Society. Roberts holds degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Constance Baker Motley of the Southern District of New York and litigated with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. She has served as a visiting professor at Northwestern, Stanford and Fordham law schools, and has received numerous prestigious fellowships, including a Fulbright fellowship at the Centre for Gender and Development Studies, University of the West Indies. A widely consulted expert in health, reproductive rights and justice, bioethics, race and gender, Roberts is among the 150 most-cited legal scholars of all time. She has authored more than 100 critically acclaimed scholarly articles and numerous highly influential books. Roberts is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and serves on the board of directors of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
Lauren Sudeall is an associate professor and the founding faculty director of the Center for Access to Justice at the Georgia State University College of Law. She holds degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School, where she served as treasurer of the Harvard Law Review. Sudeall clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens and Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. At the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, she represented indigent capital clients and civil litigants alleging constitutional violations. Sudeall’s areas of specialty are constitutional law, criminal law, capital punishment, indigent defense and access to justice. Her most recent work is interdisciplinary and focuses on how marginalized individuals navigate the legal system without counsel. Sudeall is a member of the American Bar Foundation.
Franita Tolson is vice dean for faculty and academic affairs and professor of law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. Tolson holds degrees from Truman State University and the University of Chicago Law School, where she was a member of the Chicago Law Review. Before entering academia, she clerked for Judge Ann Claire Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo of the Northern District of Illinois. Tolson’s expertise includes constitutional law, election law and legal history. Tolson has testified before the House Judiciary Committee on voting rights and currently works as an election law analyst for CNN and as co-host of an election-themed podcast, Free and Fair with Franita and Foley.
This list is not exhaustive. There are many other highly qualified current and former Black women law professors who warrant consideration—some of whom have already been mentioned in the press, including Michelle Alexander, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Lia Epperson, Danielle Holley-Walker, Sherrilyn Ifill, Janai Nelson, L. Song Richardson, and Melissa Murray.
With will and leadership, the possibilities are vast.
Catherine Smith is a professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, where she teaches torts, employment discrimination, family law and sexuality, gender and the law. Trina Jones is the Jerome M. Culp professor of law at Duke University School of Law, where she teaches civil procedure, employment discrimination, race and the law, and critical race theory.
Disclosure: Co-author Catherine Smith and Suzette Malveaux are partners.