Last month, when Ketanji Brown Jackson accepted President Joe Biden’s nomination of her to the Supreme Court of the United States, she said “I stand on Judge Motley’s shoulders,” referring to the first African American woman appointed to the federal bench.
Constance Baker Motley was born in Connecticut in 1921. There were a lot of “firsts” in her life. When she graduated from Columbia Law School in 1946, she was hired by Thurgood Marshall as the first woman in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). She worked there until 1965, becoming known as “the chief courtroom strategist of the civil rights movement.” She argued 10 cases before the Supreme Court, winning nine of them. Her work included writing the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education and leading the litigation that resulted in the integration of the Universities of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. In 1965 she became the first African American woman to serve in the New York State Senate.
In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to serve as a federal judge in the Southern District of New York, becoming the first African American woman on the federal bench. She served as Chief Judge from 1982 to 1986. Thereafter she accepted “senior status,” a term referring to semi-retirement that enables qualified federal judges to continue working with a reduced caseload, and served there until her death in 2005.