When asked by moderator Gayle King about his personal motto in Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in South Carolina, former vice president Joe Biden explained that he had a few: You get back up after you’ve been knocked down. Everyone ought to be treated with dignity. And last, he said, “that everyone should be represented — no one’s better than me and I’m no better than anyone else.” In an impassioned moment, Biden then made a monumental promise to the debate audience. "I'm looking forward to making sure there's a black woman on the Supreme Court, to make sure we, in fact, get every representation."
While Biden’s place in the polls has slipped throughout the Democratic primary, one thing has remained stable: the candidate's historically overwhelming support among black and African-American voters. On Wednesday, Biden garnered the endorsement of Rep Jim Clyburn — the highest ranking Black member of Congress — and what is believed to be a critical amount of support among voters of colour, particularly approaching Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
During the debate, Biden deflected a few questions about his recent lost momentum with black voters, which were once an unwavering part of his campaign. Although support from Clyburn will certainly influence his performance in the South Carolina primary, a promise to correct historic injustice within the Supreme Court by appointing a black woman certainly stands out.
To date, there have been zero black women on the Supreme Court and only two black people have ever served: The first was late Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 and served on the Court until 1991; the second was Justice Clarence Thomas, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 to succeed Marshall. Thomas continues to serve on the Court today. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, nominated to the Court by President Barack Obama in 2009, became the first Latinx Supreme Court Justice of any gender when she assumed the bench. But, the lack of any black women sitting as Supreme Court Justices in history is a larger issue of representation in the US.
A lack of racial and gender diversity is a major issue across all levels of the US. justice system. More than 73% of all sitting federal judges are men and 80% of all sitting federal judges are white. The presence of racial and gender diversity on the bench has been shown to positively affect decision-making, and President Trump has appointed the least diverse group of federal judges — both in terms of race and gender — in the past three decades. The number of non-white and women members of the US. population far surpasses the proportion of white and male nominees to the federal court system, creating a justice system that inherently does not look like the people it is meant to serve.
Currently, 50% of the active judges in the federal court system are both white and male. People of colour and women comprise just 27% and 33% of the active federal bench, respectively. These figures are now trending downwards as a result of the impact of the Trump appointments.
And all of the lack of diversity isn't for lack of trying, either. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, 49, was the first black woman interviewed as a potential Supreme Court Justice nominee when she met with President Obama in 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The nomination ultimately went to Judge Merrick Garland, who failed to be confirmed by the Senate during the remainder of Obama’s term, with the vacancy eventually filled by Judge Neil Gorsuch, a Trump-appointee and a cisgender white man.
Biden clearly knows that no candidate can secure the nomination without clearly defining the ways in which they will address inequality of all kinds currently plaguing the country, including that of the US. federal court system. Recognising the need for representation of black women in particular, thought to be the deciding voting block of the South Carolina primary and the subsequent Southern primaries, is a key political move for any candidate who hopes to make it to the ballot in November, especially for a candidate like Biden whose credentials on racial equality have been called into question throughout the race.