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An ISU professor on how a Black woman could change the Supreme Court

J. Scott Applewhite

When retiring Supreme Court Justice William Breyer steps down, he’ll make way for an historic first. President Joe Biden has promised to appoint a Black woman to the nation’s highest court.

Breyer is a member of the court’s minority liberal wing. So, Biden’s appointment won’t change the ideological balance. But it does have the potential to change the court in other important ways, according to Meghan Leonard, a professor of political science at Illinois State University

“We have this thing in political science we call descriptive representation, and it’s when institutions actually look like the public,” Leonard said. A court that reflects the country is important to how the public perceives the court. And the addition of a Black woman would certainly be a critical step toward representation.

That representation matters not only for the court’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public, but also in terms of decision-making. Leonard said research has shown that diverse coalitions make for better decisions.

“They consider more perspectives; they consider more information. They have longer discussions and deeper deliberations,” she said. “Certainly that is helped by adding a Black woman justice to the court.”

Dr. Meghan Leonard
Dr. Meghan Leonard from Illinois State University.

The court also stands to benefit from a diversity of lived experiences. That’s become clear to Leonard in reading the opinions of Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Hispanic justice. Justice Sotomayor often agrees with Justice Breyer — a white man — but her opinions are very different from his, Leonard said.

Those differences tend to manifest most in consideration of abortion or Fourth Amendment rights that prohibit unreasonable search and seizure. As a woman and person of color, Sotomayor brings a lived experience to the court that historically has been lacking.

The appointment of a Black woman justice can only broaden and deepen the court’s perspective, said Leonard. But she expects that Biden will have to fend off criticisms that in pledging to nominate a Black woman, he’s failing to seek out the person most qualified for the job.

Leonard said she would like to see more communication around why the Biden team is making the appointment a priority.

“It will be really imperative for them to explain that having these lived experiences of being a woman of color, it really will make the Supreme Court a more deliberative body,” she said.

Biden isn’t the first president to prioritize a certain perspective in appointing a justice. Leonard points to the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor after President Reagan promised to name the court’s first woman justice. And when Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first Black justice, retired, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to succeed him.

“So this process has been going on for years. I think President Biden has just been maybe more explicit about it,” Leonard said.

Sarah Nardi is a correspondent at WGLT. She rejoined the station in 2024.