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'A hallelujah day for America': Wisconsin's first Black woman appellate Judge Maxine White on nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 23, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker
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U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 23, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Thursday is last day of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The session will focus on character witnesses speaking on Jackson's behalf and critics of her nomination. That's after Jackson sat for three days and dozens of hours of questioning before senators.

NPR reports the Senate Judiciary Committee could vote on Monday, March 28, on the nomination, and that Jackson is expected to have enough votes for her nomination to proceed to the full Senate.

Democratic President Joe Biden tapped Jackson to fill the shoes of Justice Stephen Breyer, who is retiring. After the Judiciary Committee's vote, the full Senate will debate and vote. On average, that takes about two months, although Justice Amy Coney Barrett only waited 27 days for confirmation.

If confirmed, Jackson would be the first Black woman to serve as a justice and only the third Black person to serve in that role.

Judge Maxine White, the first Black woman on Wisconsin’s courts of appeals, weighs in on the significance of the nomination.

Maayan Silver's extended conversation with Judge Maxine White.

“Well, my reaction was one of joy, and gratitude that we live in a nation where this historic presentation of a person of color could be made for all the world to see,” White says. “That women, and particularly African American women, have a place in American democracy where we are valued, where we are seen. And we can celebrate the excellence and the intellect of someone who has been raised in a country that has laws that restricted us so much.”

In confirmation hearings, Jackson explained that she's also standing on the shoulders of generations of Americans who never had anything close to this kind of opportunity. She said her grandparents were only given access to a grade school education but instilled the importance of learning and her parents were the first in their families to go to college.

This resonates with White, who was born about two decades before Jackson and who walked on the roads of Jim Crow laws.

“I grew up as a sharecropper’s daughter, my parents didn't go to school, the census record that contains the name of my grandfather excuses Black children of all ages from even going to school, whether it's separate or equal. We were not encouraged to seek education, but to work for the benefits of others.”

Judge Maxine White
James Seder
Judge Maxine White

She says the Jackson nomination to the court “is a hallelujah day for America at a time when there are so many divides in our nation.”

White points out the nominee’s credentials, a double Harvard grad, summa cum laude, editor of the Harvard Law Review, and also someone who went to public schools and has testimonials from people across all walks of life.

It also struck White that Jackson honors those who came before her and has said that she stands on the shoulders of Constance Baker Motley, the first Black female federal judge. White says she’s felt the same gratitude.

“Well, in every speech I give, I always say, ‘Everything I am, and everything I hope to become, I owe, I owe, I owe.’ Just so many people that presented so many opportunities that but for them, I understand the depth of the contributions of Judge Motley. She came to my state of Mississippi, and she's the one on behalf of the NAACP, argued that case of James Meredith to get into the University of Mississippi. We all are familiar with our history, even though our history was never incorporated into American history in the early days. We recognize those men and women of all races, who came to our rescue, who opened doors for us and that's what she was reflecting upon.”

White understands Jackson’s sentiment that she owes so much to those who’ve blazed trails and those who supported her. “I think a recognition of that is a signpost for how sensitive she is that this spot that she's sitting in belongs to so many people who came before her who could never be seated.”

White says Jackson will continue to inspire Black women and girls, and the country, by continuing to do what she’s doing, and that includes, if confirmed, bringing to the court her experiences as a federal defenderwho has represented the indigent.

“It's so refreshing to walk into a space and a place to see men and women who reflect and represent the ideals ‘equal justice under law,’ and that people want to have a fair opportunity to say and do what they believe their positions are in the courtroom, and hopefully have some representation in place, whether it's a defender or someone they hire, to help them try and craft the regulations and the rules that favor their outcome.”

White says people love to walk into a space, whether it's into a mediation room, a family reconciliation room, a courtroom, a conference room or even a grocery store, and see themselves represented. “Representation in any aspect of our lives makes us feel more comfortable in communicating with the entity that we're in front of, and it just gives great weight to what she referred to and others have referred to, and I think Hamilton, which is one of my favorite plays, refers to, as ‘a great experiment of American democracy anticipated.'"

“What we see on that playful stage in Hamilton, that all of us no matter whether we came from single family homes, whether we came from a ragtag family, whether our skins are one color or another, whether we represent in one corner of the government or another, that we all have an opportunity to be part of this democracy, and have a fairly good life without having the harassment brought upon us not because of our actions or activities, but because of literally what we look like.”

White got emotional when she watched Jackson enter the confirmation hearing room of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I cried when she walked in surrounded by all those men. She was walking, like she said, on the shoulders of so many people. And so, I think people can look at her and say, ‘My goodness, I'm going to keep working. I'm going to keep praying, if that's my style, I'm going to keep helping other people. I'm going to keep giving, I'm going to lend my shoulders some time to my community.’ So somebody else somebody else's daughter, or son, or uncle or cousin can get a leg up by standing on my shoulders for a while.”

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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