Opinion: Biden’s promise to appoint a Black woman as Supreme Court justice updates an old tradition
The implication is Biden is repaying a political debt to the Black Americans who voted him into the White House, rather than acknowledging an oversight to recognize a deserving jurist.
Both can be true. Supreme Court nominations have always been suffused with political considerations, often reflecting the broader politics of the country with remarkable precision. Over the course of US history, it’s clear making politically savvy decisions and picking qualified judges don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
As immigration from Europe reshaped the nation during the 19th century, Supreme Court nominations began to reflect this change. There was Justice Roger B. Taney, the first Catholic in a long line that came to include Justices Pierce Butler and Frank Murphy, both of whom were confirmed in the first half of the 20th century. When President Dwight Eisenhower appointed William Brennan Jr. less than a month before his reelection in 1956, it was widely seen as an appeal to Catholic voters.
Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish justice in 1916, paving the way for Benjamin Cardozo and Felix Frankfurter, among several others.
The Civil Rights movement later created the demand for the first African American Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.
And in 2009, President Barack Obama made history when he nominated Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court.
In other words, the appointments of Supreme Court justices have always been political acts by presidents. And their choices have reflected the identity politics of their era. Far from striking out in some new direction, Biden has merely updated a tradition as old as the American presidency itself.