Tim Tai, Staff Photographer

Last week, Justice Stephen Breyer announced his plans to retire from the United States Supreme Court after the Court’s 2020-21 term, leaving a vacuum that could potentially be filled by a Yale Law School alum.

Following Breyer’s announcement, President Joe Biden publicly stated that he intends to nominate the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court as Breyer’s replacement — a promise which he first made on the 2020 campaign trail. A speculated shortlist for Breyer’s successor includes three Yale Law School graduates: Leondra Kruger LAW ’01, Candace Jackson-Akiwumi LAW ’05 and Eunice C. Lee LAW ’96. 

“Breyer was a tremendous justice, his presence will be missed,” said former Dean of Yale Law School Robert Post LAW ’77. “He was a Harvard law professor, and that allowed him to have a good relationship with justices like Justice [John] Roberts, who respected Breyer’s confidence and respected his insights. Of course they divided on political spots, nevertheless, at the margin, that was important. I hope and I trust that whoever Biden nominates will be equally qualified and influential.”

Kruger is currently a member of the California State Supreme Court and served in the Justice Departments of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Jackson-Akiwumi is a circuit court judge on the Seventh Circuit. Lee sits on the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals, overseeing New York. 

Former Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse LAW ’78 told the News that Breyer’s age made his retirement likely, and his decision to retire during Biden’s presidency allowed the Democratic Senate to have the opportunity to fill the seat. 

Nevertheless, Greenhouse said that having a Democratic Black woman replace Breyer will likely not make a difference due to the “dominance of the six conservatives” on the Court. 

“He has been a voice of reason and rationality who modeled the importance of paying attention to facts rather than slogans,” said Greenhouse. “The reality is that the Court has been politicized, and while Justice Breyer certainly hoped that would not turn out to be the case, he is smart enough to realize that his hope was not fulfilled.”

Post said that he found it “courageous” that Breyer opted to retire when he could still perform a job that he loves, and said that he believes Breyer’s decision “was the right thing.”

Post told the News that the Court has been an “object of political mobilization by the Right” for decades, and that it has served as a “policymaking institution.” He added that presidential administrations have historically aimed to create harmony within the judiciary, and have done so by having the makeup of the court reflect the demographics of the country.

“I’ll select the nominee worthy of Justice Bryer’s legacy, excellence and decency,” Biden said in his Sunday address. “While I’ve been studying candidates’ backgrounds and writings, I have made no decision except one. The person I will nominate will be someone of extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity. And that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court.”

Biden’s announcement has sparked controversy. In an ABC News/Ipsos poll, over three-quarters of U.S. adults who responded said Biden should “consider all possible nominees,” rather than only considering nominees who are Black women.

Sara Campbell ’22, who has previously worked on judicial nominations at an advocacy organization, said she feels that the announcement further politicized the nomination process.

“The idea that the concept of nominating a Black woman, or being committed to nominating a Black woman, is somehow a denial of the qualifications of people who belong to different racial or ethnic groups, or people who have different gender identities I think is logically laughable but is obviously a headline,” Campbell said. “That’s been very frustrating to hear.”

Campbell said that she has been keeping up with the whole process as she is a Black woman who wants to go into law, and highlighted the importance of representation on the bench.

Biden’s promise recognizes the barriers that Black women must overcome to join the small group of elite federal judges. With 4.7 percent of lawyers in America being Black and 37 percent of lawyers being female, both groups are disproportionately underrepresented in legal professions. 

“I think it’s important to have people in the court who have lived experiences, or who can understand these lived experiences, of the people who have the most to lose in these big upcoming court cases that we’ve seen in the last couple of years that really impact the lives of Black women,” Campbell said.

Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge, was confirmed in 1966. Since then, only 3.7 percent of federal judges have been Black women.

Biden said that the nomination of a Black woman to the Supreme Court is “long overdue.”

“I’m inspired,” Abi Ndikum ’24 said. “I come from Prince George’s County, Maryland, a predominantly African-American community. I grew up seeing Black people assume high positions, but when I went to boarding school in Massachusetts, this became an anomaly. Suddenly it seemed a ‘privilege’ to see Black women in such high positions. It seemed as though Black women had to put in double the effort to be recognized.”

Ndikum added that seeing successful Black women be recognized for their accomplishments and be considered for the Supreme Court encourages her to “keep working hard to open up space for others like [herself] to go even further.”

However, with every Supreme Court Justice currently holding a degree from an Ivy League institution other than Amy Coney Barrett, many still have concerns about the academic diversity of the nation’s highest court. All of the shortlisted candidates except for one also hold Ivy League degrees. 

Campbell emphasized that many people from a wide range of schools are qualified for judgeships. However, she said that these more well-known institutions teach students how to “play the game” and provide easy means to be put on shortlists in the first place. Campbell said this is indicative of larger issues in the nomination process. 

“Yale is an extremely elite Law School in the sense that the students who graduate here become leaders in whatever field they go into,” Post said. “We produce a lot of outstanding graduates. We punch way above our weight and so the students who go to the Law School, far more than statistically, have gotten acquainted with high positions.”

A total of 11 Yale Law School alumni have served on the Supreme Court.

DANTE MOTLEY
Dante Motley covers Black communities at Yale and in New Haven. He is also an Associate Editor for the YDN Magazine and works on "The Yalie" podcast. He is a sophomore in Grace Hopper majoring in anthropology.
EDA AKER
Eda Aker is a WKND Editor and previously covered Yale Law School for the University Desk. She is a junior in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs.