WASHINGTON (CN) — Just two female black judges sit on the bench in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, but one will soon take up the case of a 2018 police shooting that resulted in the death of 22-year-old Marquees Alston.
Kenithia Alston filed suit last week, demanding that the District of Columbia pay damages and release police body-cam footage of her son’s final moments. Her case was randomly assigned, as is the practice in the district, to U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
“It’s my firm belief, desire and prayer that, since we filed this case, that it will release some of the burden off myself,” Alston told Courthouse News this week.
As the country celebrates Juneteenth — a day recognizing the emancipation of the last slaves in America, there are 195 active and senior district judges in America who are black. Just more than one-quarter are black women, according to data from the Federal Judicial Center. That number drops to just eight black female jurists on the nation’s 13 federal appeals courts.
Christopher Kang, former deputy counsel to President Barack Obama, and co-founder and chief counsel of Demand Justice, said that lack of racial diversity undermines the legitimacy of the courts.
“We can’t achieve equal justice under the law without a judiciary that reflects the people it serves and understands the impact of the law on everyday Americans and not just the wealthy and the powerful,” Kang said Friday in an email.
Judicial nominees under President Donald Trump are whiter than they have been in decades, in some cases even succeeding retiring jurists of color.
“The lack of racial diversity in the federal courts is a huge problem. It doesn’t speak to what America looks like or should aim to be,” said Rashawn Ray, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, in an email Friday. Ray is also the David M. Rubenstein fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Back in 2016, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington was among those considered by Obama to fill Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat. The Supreme Court has never had a female black justice.
It was Obama who appointed Jackson both to the District Court bench and, years earlier, to the position of vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
A former federal public defender and clerk to Justice Stephen Breyer, the 49-year-old judge has left her mark in several weighty cases.
Last year, Jackson penned a 120-page opinion that shot down Trump’s claim of absolute immunity for top-level advisers as “baseless.” She also sentenced the so-called “pizzagate” shooter who fired a gun inside a Washington restaurant, purportedly in pursuit of a right-wing conspiracy.
Lena Zwarensteyn, fair courts director at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, notes that those who work in the justice system — be they judges, lawyers, bailiffs or other officers — offer an important indicator of the confidence a community can expect in the right to equal justice under law.
“Having a bench representative of various races, ethnicities, gender identities, experiences, and more, would not only be reflective of the incredible diversity of our country, but it would do more to ensure judges who administer the law understand the various ways in which their rulings impact the day-to-day lives of people,” Zwarensteyn said Friday in an email.
Maggie Jo Buchanan, director of Legal Progress with the public policy organization Center for American Progress, agreed that the legitimacy of the courts is at stake when calling for a racially diverse judiciary.
“These disparities are the result of the longstanding, intersectional discrimination these women face and also speak to the elitist, exclusionary nature of the federal judiciary,” Buchanan said in an email Friday. “Such a state of affairs harms the administration of justice by keeping diverse viewpoints and experiences off the bench.”
America’s complicated history with diversity has been widely dissected in recent months amid national protests over police killings of unarmed black Americans. Zina Makar, an attorney at the Georgetown University Law Center who prepared the lawsuit over Marquees Alston’s killing, noted that the case was filed two days before the relevant statute of limitations expired, not to coincide with the movement’s prominence.
“It’s a common tactic for police officers to evade liability by running out the clock and not providing any information during that time period,” Makar said.
She added that the officers who shot her client’s son are expected to invoke the doctrine of qualified immunity — a defense that has served police across the country in lawsuits over excessive use of force. Overturning the doctrine is one of the major demands from protesters following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Alston notes she has struggled in recent weeks to reconcile why her battle with the city remains ongoing while Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has made numerous public endorsements of Black Lives Matter. Two prominent examples include having a city block near the White House renamed “Black Lives Matter Plaza,” and having the movement’s name painted on a major district street.
“I’m a black woman. My son is a black male. He was killed, I still don’t know why. So I interpret that as me and my son’s life do not matter,” Alston said.
The 41-year-old Washington resident voiced hope that her case is “handled with justice, and that it’s seen clearly through the lens of my own eyes as a mother, as just someone trying to find out the truth of what happened to my son.”
Though Alston said she expects a fair trial, regardless of the race or gender of the judge assigned to her case, Zwarensteyn emphasized that it is important for the federal bench to represent the country’s racial makeup.
“For people who enter the courtroom, it is powerful when they can see judges that reflect them, their experiences, and their communities,” Zwarensteyn said.