Biden Promises a Black Woman on SCOTUS; Here's What WA's First Black Female Justice Says


The news of long-time U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's impending retirement spread quickly Wednesday morning.

Just as quickly, discussion turned to who President Joe Biden would nominate to replace him.

With no disrespect to the 83-year-old Breyer — who was appointed in 1994 by Bill Clinton and now represents the senior vote on the court's liberal wing — the quick shift was no surprise. At least since the Merrick Garland saga of 2016 — and, really, long before it — appointments to the high court have been highly politicized ordeals. Trump's trifecta of successful appointments — likely cementing a conservative majority on the court for years to come — only upped the ante for Democrats.

On the 2020 campaign trail, Biden promised to nominate a Black woman to the court if given the chance, which would represent a historic first for the nation. Biden first mentioned the idea during a South Carolina presidential primary debate in early 2020, and it was a promise well-received by many liberal voters, plenty of whom now expect him to make good on it. Hours after word of Breyer's expected retirement broke, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president "certainly stands by that" pledge. A day later, Biden confirmed his intentions.

While the political punditry machine is running wild with possible nominees Biden is expected choose from — or, in the case of Fox News, pushing out red meat tweets about how "the most 'woke' members of Congress" are demanding that Biden "play identity politics with highest court nomination" — closer to home, state Supreme Court Justice Helen Whitener knows just what's at stake.

After years spent in local courtrooms, including five on the Pierce County Superior Court bench, Whitener became Washington's first Black female Supreme Court justice in 2020 when Gov. Jay Inslee appointed her to fill a seat being vacated by Justice Charles Wiggins. She's also the state's first Black LGBT judge, and the fourth immigrant-born justice.

All of it gives Whitener, who was reelected by voters in 2020, a unique perspective on the decision Biden now faces, and the potential significance of a Black woman taking a seat on the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, Whitener said she has "no doubt" Biden should follow through on his pledge, and that a Black female jurist would be good for the court and the nation for "a number of reasons."

"Most important, the judiciary is not in the highest standard right now with the public, and we need to build public trust and confidence in our public institutions. This is the Supreme Court of the United States. This is where the law of the land comes from, and when you look at it, it's not representative of the people it serves," Whitener told The News Tribune.

"The value is in lifting the institution. This is the branch of government that makes decisions that impact every citizen, and it raises the legitimacy (to have Black women represented)," Whitener continued. "I think it's important to have different jurists at the table, because they bring value to the decisions that have to be made."

Asked about the potential implications of Biden appointing a Black woman to the court, Whitener said it would be a choice that ripples beyond the history books. While she firmly expects current U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to get the nod, Whitener said that any Black woman chosen for the job will "be highly qualified" and prepared to serve.

From her own experience as Washington's first Black female state Supreme Court Justice, Whitener has seen how it provided hope and expanded the horizons of the next generation. She believes a Black female U.S. Supreme Court justice would have an even larger impact.

"I didn't realize how much it mattered until I got here. I didn't realize how much it matters to little Black girls, but what surprised me is how much it matters to all children, and especially little white girls," Whitener said. "Then I realized we're living in a different time, because they're coming up with more integration than has ever been in our system."

"We just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but in a way we kind of dropped the ball on his dream, because we didn't effectuate plans to put his dream into action," Whitener continued. "But the generation we're seeing now, they're looking at us and saying, 'Yeah, I have a dream, but you know what? I have an action plan for what I'm going to do, because not only do I know it's possible, I know I can do it.'

"That's what having an African American woman on the Supreme Court will do for this nation," she said.