In the weeks since Justice Stephen Breyer announced that he would be retiring from the Supreme Court, the White House had been fairly quiet about President Joe Biden’s plans beyond the two commitments he made at the event where Breyer announced his retirement: Biden intends to follow through on his campaign pledge to nominate a Black woman to the court, and he plans to do so by the end of February.
Then, in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that was recorded Feb. 10 and aired before the Super Bowl, Biden made it clear that the selection process was well underway, saying that he doing a deep dive on “about four” possible nominees. The White House previously confirmed that U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs was under consideration, although it has not confirmed that she is one of the four names to which Biden referred. D.C. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has been seen as the most likely possible pick, with Childs and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger also getting significant attention as possible picks. Childs has strong support from Democratic South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, an early and key backer of Biden’s presidential run.
While Biden was circumspect about his plans in speaking with Holt, for those outside the White House, now is the time to speak out. As news broke that Breyer would be retiring, Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts was quick to send a reminder to Biden of his campaign pledge — tweeting at the president that “it’s time for a Black woman on the Supreme Court.” With that commitment appearing to be in place, a group of 14 Black women House members, led by Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri and including Pressley, wrote to Biden on Feb. 10 urging that he nominate not only a Black woman but one whose career echoes Thurgood Marshall’s history as a leading civil rights lawyer before joining the court.
Grid spoke with Pressley on Feb. 10 about the coming nomination and why Biden’s pledge matters to her. Pressley, whose political career included electoral firsts as a Black woman on Boston’s City Council and as a member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, told Grid that it’s not just a matter of the benefits of new voices in the room when such “firsts” happen. “I remember my first election to the Boston City Council,” Pressley said, “and many people asked me, ‘Who suffered prior to your election: Black folks or women?’ And my answer was always the same: ‘Everyone.’”
In the conversation, she also shared her thoughts about those who have questioned the pledge, the uphill climb that liberals face at the Supreme Court and in Congress — and who she favors for the nomination.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: Just to start us off, what is the importance of that pledge to you?
Rep. Ayanna Pressley: Well, it’s important that the administration is responsive to and honoring promises that were made, and responsive to the needs of this movement of the most marginalized, which mobilized, made this Democratic majority possible. And so I am grateful and encouraged that the president is pledging to honor that commitment that was made on the campaign trail.
And certainly we know that there have been so many harmful decisions to come out of this — the extremism and the imbalance of this SCOTUS, whether you’re talking about voting rights, or whether you’re talking about the eviction moratorium, or reproductive justice. And so, we’re long overdue. You know, there’s often effusive praise and verbal bouquets for the roles that Black women play on the front lines of every social movement throughout history all the way until today. Increasingly, there has been validation of the role that we play — at the ballot box and on the ballot as candidates. And so we have been doing the work of seeking justice and preserving this democracy. And it is long overdue that we have a Black woman on the Supreme Court.
And I think when you contextualize it within history here, since its inception, there have been 115 Supreme Court justices — and not a single Black woman. Over 100 white men. Government is more responsive when solutions are not being developed through a homogenized and monolithic prism. Everyone is better served when there is a diversity of lived experience, perspective and opinion and thought. And so, if that’s true at city hall, and it is true in Congress, it is certainly true for the Supreme Court.
G: I know you’ve issued press releases, you’ve talked with reporters about some of these decisions that have come out of the court, from the eviction moratorium to Texas’ S.B. 8 anti-abortion law and now with voting rights. We’re still going to have these six conservative justices, five of whom seem to be sort of arch-conservative or reactionary, willing to go further than Chief Justice John Roberts is even willing to go. What difference do you think this appointment, having a Black woman in those conversations, is going to make in such an unbalanced court?
AP: Well, first, I think it’s important that President Biden honor the promise that he made. Secondly, this is long overdue. This is the very first nomination of a Black woman that we will have. But, moreover, justice is not manifest. It’s not actualized by any one person. And so, in this instance, it’s not “or” — it’s “and.” We need to nominate and confirm a Black woman to the Supreme Court. We need to pass Rep. [Hank] Johnson and [Mondaire] Jones’s legislation to expand the courts, for which there is precedence: Congress has done this seven times before.
And what I know is that when Black women are at the table, we shake the table, and I don’t mean physically, I mean because we call into account different questions. So as an example, when I served on the Boston City Council, our very first budget cycle, every agency and department that came before the council, I asked them, “What are you doing for girls?” because I felt the narrative had really been dominated by how at- and proven-risk Black and brown boys are. But there was little attention being paid to the girls growing up in the very same conditions and environments. So, every city department and agency that came before us in that budget cycle, I’d say, “What are you doing for the girls? What are you doing for Black girls?” And their answers were monosyllabic, you know, if they had any at all. But by the second budget cycle, they came with cross-tabbed, multicolored binders. And that is because they knew that someone would call the question. You know, have we realized everything that we need to in terms of pay inequity for Black women still getting paid 64 cents on $1 to white men; or the Black maternal morbidity crisis, where Black women are some four times more likely to die in childbirth or postpartum complications; or any other of the inequities and gender and racial disparities that Black women disproportionately bear, including student debt? So, we have not addressed all of those issues. However, the fact that there are Black women serving in Congress is why there’s even a light being shown and attention being paid to these issues at all. So, I know the same will be true when we have that lived experience on the Supreme Court.
G: Just today, you and 13 of your fellow Black female colleagues sent a letter to Biden talking about what it was that you’re hoping to see from this nomination. And you went a little further than just saying that it’s great that he’s going to have a Black woman; you talked about the history — the civil rights history — that Thurgood Marshall brought to the Supreme Court, and that you recommend that his nominee, Biden’s nominee, have a similar civil rights record. Do you want to talk a little bit about that and why that’s important?
AP: I think the fact that — you know, myself and my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, my women colleagues, my sister colleagues — that we put that letter forward, again, speaks to the power of representation. And in our affirming of the need for there to be a justice who will center racial justice and equity and fairness — and to be strident and unapologetic about the need for us to have that representation. We want someone that cares about workers’ rights, that cares about racial justice, that cares about reproductive justice.
G: I think that that shows where we’re at and the important sort of issues that are coming before the court. Obviously, either later this term or probably next term, the court’s going to be hearing an affirmative action case. You talk about this need to do more than just have a new justice, the need to expand the court, in your view. What is, as a community leader, as a national leader, what do you tell your constituents? What do you tell the country about what it is that they should be doing?
AP: I think there’s a couple of steps here. So first and foremost, I remain focused on expanding our Democratic majority in the Senate by two so that we can abolish the filibuster, restore voting rights, preserve bodily autonomy by passing the Women’s Health Protection Act, pass gun reform, immigration reform, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. I mean, the filibuster has obstructed the actualization of justice and progress, really, in every iteration. So that remains important.
Certainly doing everything that we can to maintain the Democratic majority in the House. And I do think that requires us to legislate and lead in an unprecedented way, to meet this unprecedented moment, in the midst of a global pandemic, with a pandemic-induced recession, and against the backdrop of a national reckoning on racial injustice. I’m of the belief that we risk the majority by playing small, not by going big. We have to advance policies and budgets that go as far and as deep as the hurt.
And as far as the movement, I still believe that the state of our movement is strong. I know that there are times, as activists and in organizers, where we are fatigued and at times, even demoralized — this has not been easy. But we don’t have the luxury of being cynical or apathetic, or being complacent. We have to meet this unprecedented moment of hardship, and precise and coordinated attacks against voting rights, against reproductive justice, again, against injustice in every form, with unprecedented organizing, and mobilizing. We just have to stay at it.
And then finally, I would just say the coordination and alignment of every level of government is so important. So, as we are met by obstruction in the Senate, there are ways that I am working with statehouse colleagues in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to move issues on the state level. Whether we’re talking about police reform, or voting rights, or lowering the cost of prescription drugs, or eviction moratoriums. And so, for as long as we are in this very challenging and polarized state, in the House, in the Senate, and with the far-right extremism and imbalance of the Supreme Court, it is important that we are also leaning in and pushing our municipalities and our states to lead in this moment.
But none of us should abdicate our responsibility to lead and to organize and to fight. And certainly, we do have a fight ahead of us even with the president saying that there will be a Black woman to be nominated. We are still going to have to do the work of organizing and fighting until this is real. But this is a fight worth taking on because the threat to our fundamental rights and liberties is not hypothetical. They are under attack by this far-right Supreme Court.
G: That point, on the pledge and the fight that you’re still going to have, there has been some pushback, some more blatantly racist than —
AP: I was going to say, you’re being kind.
G: Some more blatantly racist than others. What do you have to say to that? What do you have to say to the people who have questioned whether it was right for Biden to say that he is going to appoint a Black woman? Or nominate a Black woman?
AP: I don’t have much to say to them, because these aren’t even dog whistles at this point, these are bullhorns. And it is a consistent pattern of emboldened white supremacy, ignorance, anti-Black sentiment. And again, since the inception of the Supreme Court, we have had 100 white men and not one Black woman. I don’t have time to try to dissuade or persuade or cajole those folks. I need to remain focused right now on who we’re putting forward, making sure that we do put forward a Black woman, again, who will restore balance, fairness and integrity to the Supreme Court; who will prioritize racial justice; who will bring their unique lived experience to the table. And then again, we have legislative tools available to us as well that I think we need to continue to push — and that is to expand the courts.
But what I want everyone to know at this moment is that, although it may feel this way, we’re not powerless. We’re not powerless to stop these attacks. Congress has the power and the duty to restore balance and integrity to the Supreme Court by expanding it; the Constitution gives Congress the power to expand the size of the court. And Congress, again, has used this power — there is precedence — seven times before in our nation’s history. And I think this moment demands that we use that power, we flex that muscle once again. If we expand the court, then we can have a judiciary, then we can have a democracy, that truly protects our basic rights: voting rights, reproductive rights and much, much more. Time is of the essence. To secure our future, we need to expand the court, I believe, before we miss our chance. So we need to exact and pull every lever available to us. We’ve got to be, you know, organizing and pushing on all cylinders.
G: I know that your time is of the essence, too. But one last question: In your letter, the 14 of you didn’t name any names. Do you have any name? Is there any candidate that you think should be front and center? Certainly Rep. Clyburn is pushing some people — one person.
AP: Well, look, we’re talking about the Supreme Court, we’re talking about the bench, right? Well, good news. The good news is that we have a very loaded bench of exemplary, qualified, standout Black women who would do well in this seat. I do believe what really matters in this moment is that we see a nominee, again, committed to racial justice, to economic and to reproductive justice. But if you’re twisting my arm, you know, we always worry about naming names, but I do think that Sherrilyn Ifill would be extraordinary. Ketanji Brown Jackson, also. And then being a little parochial, since I do represent the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, so I do have to acknowledge the exemplary leadership of [Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court] Chief Justice Kimberly Budd.
G: There we go. We actually got some names.
AP: Yeah. And can I also just say this, I think it’s very important that we not pit Black women against one another. That certainly is not anything that I want to contribute to. And I implore others to do the same. This is a historic milestone moment for our country. As I said, we’re talking about Supreme Court, the bench, and fortunately, we have a deep bench of extraordinarily talented and qualified Black women to be considered, and that is something to be celebrated, and that’s what I will be centering is all of this Black girl magic, Black woman work and excellence.