April 7, 2022 – The topic of the University of Houston Law Center’s annual Yale L. Rosenberg Memorial Lecture was well-timed this year. Held on March 22, the discussion centered on Judge Constance Baker Motley, the nation’s first Black female federal justice and a new book on Motley written by Harvard scholar, Tomiko Brown-Nagin. Justice Motley shared the same birth day as the nation’s first Black female Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. When Jackson’s nomination was announced, she remarked on this connection: “Today I proudly stand on Judge Motley’s shoulders, sharing not only her birthday but also her steadfast and courageous commitment to equal justice under law.”
“This is such a timely conversation,” said UHLC’s Dean Leonard Baynes who opened the evening’s event. “We invited you [Brown-Nagin] over a year ago, and it is amazing that it came to the fore now.”
Brown-Nagin began by sharing stories from her latest book “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality.” She currently serves as the Dean of the Radcliffe Institute, the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and is a member of the History Department at the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Brown-Nagin explained that it wasn’t uncommon for Judge Motley to experience both race and gender-based humiliation from her peers. “She was seeking justice and equality for her clients and herself at the same time.”
Brown-Nagin also noted that diversity in every sector, including on the bench is critical. “Inclusion is important simply because…these appointments reinforce American democracy regardless of race, gender etc. Inclusion builds confidence in government that it is fair.”
UH Professor Leandra Zarnow, an expert in feminist studies, picked up the thread of representation. Zarnow connected the lives of Motley and former New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug. They would support each other as lawyers and colleagues in a male dominated and sometimes unwelcoming world. “Being a first is always both a burden and an honor,” Abzug wrote to Motley in 1964 as they were fighting not only their court cases but also gender discrimination from judges in the courtroom. Judges who would treat them differently than their male counterparts by sometimes dismissing their arguments entirely.
As Dean Baynes introduced UH Professor Renee Knake Jefferson, an expert in legal ethics, he noted that both Abzug and Motley were “two powerhouse women in New York politics” something he’s very aware of as a former New Yorker.
Knake Jefferson expanded the list of women who were making strides beyond Motley and Abzug, noting the near misses in an African American woman joining the Supreme Court before this year. For example, Texan and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan made President Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee list along with Judge Motley before he appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the court. In fact, observed Knake Jefferson, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson received a position that almost went to Motley, but she was passed over for the current Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer.
Judge Motley was the inaugural member of what is still a small number of Black female federal justices. This group includes Judge Vanessa Gilmore, a UHLC graduate and when she was sworn in, the youngest federal judge in the nation. Judge Gilmore added to the conversation by recalling a case that Motley fought as a lawyer about a Black student named James Meredith. He was looking to study at the University of Mississippi. Motley won the case but not without having to appeal to the President of the United States to have the National Guard accompany Meredith to school so he could attend classes. “As a result, he [Meredith] went to the school, became a lawyer and a social activist,” said Judge Gilmore.
The final speaker of the evening, Akilah Folami, a law professor at Hofstra University shared her personal experience with Judge Motley. Professor Folami was a legal clerk for Motley, and she recalls often being mentored and engaged in debate. “Judge Motley never instructed me directly, she nudged,” said Folami. “She was a formidable woman that I am honored to have known and these memories [of her] continue to shape me today.”
In reflection to close out the evening, Dean Baynes asked how it happens “against all odds” that someone like Constance Baker Motley could be appointed to one of the highest courts in the land. Brown-Nagin answered simply, “She was a woman who would not be put down, she would not stop, no matter the difficulties she encountered.”
To learn more about the annual Yale L. Rosenberg Memorial Lecture series and Rosenberg’s work, click here.
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