Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., administers the Constitutional Oath to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in the West Conference Room, Supreme Court Building. Dr. Patrick Jackson holds the Bible. Credit: Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States. (Photo: Getty Images)
In many ways, the U.S. Supreme Court’s actions over the past few years serve as a blueprint of what not to do if you’re a Tennessee judge looking to build public trust in our state courts.
The Supreme Court continues to issue hostile, unsigned, eleventh-hour rulings with little to no transparency through a secretive process called a ‘shadow docket’. This process is exactly what it sounds like- decisions made in the dark with no extensive briefings or hearings like most consequential court decisions require.
While consequential decisions are being made in the shadows, here’s what our conservative justices are doing in broad daylight: making public appearances at partisan political events and giving speeches at gatherings hosted by wealthy special interest groups who backed their nominations to the bench in the first place. Most recently, we woke up to the news that the Supreme Court overturned federal protections for abortion – a constitutional right relied upon by three generations of Americans – giving the signal that other decisions considered settled law will be reviewed and could be under threat to be overturned as well.
It should come with little surprise that public approval for the Court has plummeted. But a recent poll of Black voters paints an even grimmer picture for trust in our nation’s highest court. The poll, conducted by HIT Strategies BlackTrack, found that approval for the Cout plunged to 42 percent, an all-time low for the company’s polling. This was a huge shift, given that a poll from just a few months before had found support among Black voters to be at an all-time high of 63 percent, following the nomination and confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to sit on the Court.
In other words, the tremendous progress that Jackson’s confirmation made with Black voters was wiped away almost overnight. In two polls we can see a warning for Tennessee courts, as well as a lesson on how we can make sure that our state judiciary doesn’t go the way of the Supreme Court.
There’s a reason that we, Black voters, were encouraged by Justice Jackson’s appointment to the Supreme Court. It’s because we felt that our viewpoints and lived experiences were one step closer to being considered. After all, people are more likely to trust courts they feel connected to and ultimately, trust is what our judicial system operates on.
As a resident of Shelby County, a Black woman, and an activist fighting for fair courts and voting rights, I can’t tell you how important having representatives and highly qualified judges is to securing that trust. Unfortunately, the promise of a fully representative court system has never been delivered here in Tennessee. In our state’s more than 226-year history, only two Black justices have sat on our state supreme court, neither of whom were women. This isn’t just a problem in Tennessee. A 2021 analysis found that there were all-white state supreme courts in 22 states – half of which were states where people of color made up roughly a quarter or more of the population.
In total, people of color account for around 40 percent of the national population, but justices of color make up less than 17 percent of state Supreme Court seats.
The upshot of this disproportionate and systematic lack of jurists of color is that millions of Americans, including Tennesseans, don’t see themselves and their communities represented when they look at their state courts. Not only does that weaken public trust in our courts, but it can also make accepting controversial or contentious rulings all the more difficult. Without knowing that my perspective is adequately represented in the courts, how can I fully trust the decisions being made that impact me and my community?
The lesson is clear for Tennessee: we need more representative and highly qualified judges in Tennessee that reject partisan politics and are solely focused on issuing fair rulings. We must ensure that every person in our state has confidence in the fairness of our courts. It’s what the authors of our state Constitution envisioned, and for good reason. Equal and fair justice can only be achieved through fair courts and we are moving further and further away from this reality.
Ultimately, our goal should be to guarantee a fair day in court for every Tennessean, no matter which corner of the state they’re from, what they look like, how much money they make, or what connections they have. It’s important that we fight for this as it is necessary to building a better, brighter future here in Tennessee.
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