Black law deans say Jackson confirmation could inspire new wave of students

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Former U.S. Senator Doug Jones walks with Supreme Court Nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson ahead of a meeting with Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 5, 2022. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

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  • Seeing a Black woman on the Supreme Court would broaden law student pipeline, deans say
  • Confirmation hearings prompt campus discussions on diverse experiences, viewpoints

(Reuters) - The expected confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court could prompt a greater number of diverse students — particularly Black women — to pursue a law degree, legal educators predicted this week.

Jackson, who would be the first Black women to sit on the high court, has won the support of three Republican senators and is poised to be confirmed as early as Thursday. Black women deans at three U.S. law schools described her rise as an inspiration to underrepresented groups in the profession.

“To see soon-to-be Justice Jackson sitting in her robe — the image of it is so powerful and meaningful,” said Rutgers law dean Kimberly Mutcherson, noting that many first-generation students have told her they never encountered a lawyer who looked like them until law school. “That can plant a little seed where a girl thinks, ‘Hmm, I wonder how you get there?’”

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Racial diversity among law students has grown incrementally over the past 15 years but still lags behind the U.S. population. Non-white students earned 31% of the Juris Doctors awarded in 2020, up from 23% in 2007, according to law school non-profit AccessLex Institute. About 8% of this year’s first-year law students are Black, according to the American Bar Association, compared to more than 12% of the U.S. population. Fewer than 10% of federal judges are Black, ABA data show.

“Representation matters,” said Boston University law dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig. “I’m certain there will be more people who didn’t see themselves included in the law who will look at Associate Justice Jackson and be inspired to follow their dream of becoming a law student.”

Onwuachi-Willig noted a 2018 study from the Association of American Law Schools that found Black law students were more likely than their white classmates to start considering law school prior to college and even before high school. Jackson's addition to the Supreme Court will strengthen that pipeline by providing a highly visible role model, she said.

Jackson’s confirmation hearings have been a major topic of discussion at Penn State Dickinson Law, said dean Danielle Conway. The school, like others, broadcast the confirmation hearings on campus. It has provided an opportunity discuss the importance of having a diversity of experience on the Supreme Court, Conway noted.

“I’ve been talking about what it means to have the voice of a Black woman on the record — in the rooms where decisions are made,” she said. “I’m feeling this remarkable opportunity to spring our nation forward.”

Read more:

U.S. Senate eyes Thursday vote on top court nominee Jackson

Deep applicant pool yields record-breaking diversity at top law schools

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at