In 1981, Amalya Kearse became the first Black woman to appear on a presidential shortlist for a high court vacancy
JJudge Amalya Lyle Kearse, a Black woman from Vauxhall, New Jersey, was within arm’s reach of a Supreme Court nomination 41 years ago. And 35 years ago. And 31 years ago. And 28 years ago.
In 1981, Kearse became the first Black woman to appear on a presidential shortlist for a high court vacancy, a pinnacle she reached three more times over the next 13 years. She would’ve been the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court had Presidents Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush or Bill Clinton chosen her from a small pool of possible nominees.
Kearse is 84 years old, so her window has closed. On Friday, President Joe Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson, 51, fulfilling a campaign pledge to name a Black woman for the first time. Legal observers, attorneys and authors who spoke to Forbes said Kearse’s story demonstrates how Black women, no matter how qualified, have long gotten short shrift when it came to opportunities to occupy one of America’s most powerful positions.
“When I think about what we’ve lost these last decades by not having the perspective of a Black woman on this Supreme Court, it’s been worse for the law and worse for the country,” Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, told Forbes.
Speaking about Kearse, she added: “It’s a part of the many stories of Black women whose qualifications and experience were not recognized as fully as they should have been.”
Kearse is currently a senior judge with the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, based in Manhattan. She’s been there since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter appointed her in the middle of a broader effort to diversify the federal bench. Kearse didn’t return calls and emails requesting comment.
Kearse is the first Black woman judge to serve on any federal appellate court, according to the Howard Law Journal. At the Second Circuit, she was the first woman judge and second Black judge behind eventual Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Kearse was recognized as the first Black woman on a Supreme Court shortlist in the 2020 book Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court by law professors Renee Knake Jefferson and Hannah Brenner Johnson.
Here’s Kearse’s story as a prospective Supreme Court nominee:
- Reagan put Kearse on his shortlist in 1981 when he pledged to nominate the first woman to the high court. He ultimately picked Sandra Day O’Connor, a white woman.
- In 1987, Reagan considered Kearse for the seat vacated by Justice Lewis Powell, but instead he nominated Robert Bork, a white man. Bork’s candidacy was rejected by the Senate and Reagan eventually chose Anthony Kennedy, a white man, who served on the high court until 2018.
- In 1991, Kearse’s name re-emerged when Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas, a Black man, appeared in peril when he was accused of sexual harassment. One of Kearse’s colleagues, Judge Jon O. Newman, wrote a New York Times op-ed calling for Thomas to step aside and for Bush to nominate Kearse. Thomas went on to be confirmed and marked 30 years on the high court last fall.
- In 1994, Clinton had Kearse on his shortlist for the seat vacated by Justice Harry Blackmun. Clinton chose Stephen Breyer, whose retirement paves the way for Brown Jackson.
Kearse didn’t sit squarely in any political camp, having been on the shortlist for two Republican presidents and one Democrat, and having been chosen for the federal bench by a Democratic president.
to 1991 Los Angeles Times article described Kearse as a “moderate Republican” but noted her opinions on some social issues, including her 1989 dissent that defended the right to receive abortion information from federally funded clinics. the Wall Street Journal reported in 1993 that Kearse was a Supreme Court favorite among prominent lawyers, “seen by Republicans as a cautious judge who is well-versed on securities issues, and Democrats note that she isn’t afraid to take their side on social issues.”
Receiving that kind of bipartisan support didn’t help Kearse garner a Supreme Court nomination, Leslie Davis, CEO of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, told Forbes.
“I think that speaks volumes about the fact that even when you have support from both parties, if there’s not an intentional effort,” a Black woman getting nominated “may very well not happen,” Davis said.
It’s unclear how close Kearse came to being nominated, said Jefferson, one of the book authors. She said it’s also difficult to pinpoint the exact number of times each woman appeared on a shortlist, but that Kearse “is one of a few who showed up repeatedly in our research.”
Kearse’s mother was a physician and anti-poverty official and her father was a postmaster. She’s a 1959 alumna of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where an international law course sparked her interest in becoming a litigator.
She graduated with honors from the University of Michigan Law School in 1962 and joined New York-based Hughes, Hubbard & Reed. Seven years later she was elected partner there, making her the first Black woman to rise to that level at a major Wall Street law firm.
Kearse is a world-class bridge player, winning seven American Bridge Association championships and five North American Bridge championships. She has authored, edited and translated books on the game, which her parents de ella first taught her to play in high school.
Carter appointed Kearse and six other Black women to federal judgeships during his single term in office, according to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. Before Carter became president, just 10 of the previous 1,824 lifetime federal judge appointments had gone to a woman, the Administrative Office of the US Courts said.
“As Malcolm X said, the Black woman has been the most disrespected, unprotected and neglected person in America,” civil-rights attorney Ben Crump told Forbes. “We’ll see if that holds true during these Senate confirmation hearings.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism