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Black Jurists Among Supreme Court Contenders

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President Barack Obama is likely to appoint a moderate to fill the vacancy created with the retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and there are several African-Americans with the experience and background for the job, leading black law educators say.

Among those mentioned are Leah Ward Sears, former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court; Judge Ann Claire Williams, a U.S. Circuit Judge on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a former civil rights lawyer who also was an assistant attorney general in the U.S. Justice Department.

A senior administration official said the president’s consideration is not just centered on the three people receiving the most public attention: Federal appeals court judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan.


The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no announcements have been made about the people Obama is considering for the court.


“Leah Ward Sears out of Atlanta is a strong leader. She collected bipartisan support to win her position,” Dean Raymond Pierce of the North Carolina Central School of Law told “Her rulings are soundly based on the law.”

Sears’ name also is on a short list of potential nominees confirmed by the Associated Press with a source in the Obama administration.

The first black woman in America to lead a state Supreme Court, Sears was appointed to the court in 1992 by former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller and later won a statewide race to remain on the bench.

Judge Ann Claire Williams has the experience and the intellectual fire to serve on the nation’s highest court, said Ted Shaw, a Columbia University Law School Professor who led the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for several years.

The president should also look outside traditional circles for candidates, Shaw said. Gov. Patrick is one who would fit in that category.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a Supreme Court justice who was not a judge before the appointment, such as Justice Warren, who had been governor of California,” Shaw told “Deval Patrick would be an inspired choice, In addition to being a governor, he has been general counsel for two major corporations and a civil rights lawyer.”

When he was nominated to the Supreme Court 30 years ago, Stevens was viewed as a conservative. Since that time, the court has shifted more to the right, and Stevens has been viewed more as a moderate, Shaw said.

The retirement of Stevens and the process of nominating a new justice come at a time when the country already is politically polarized.

Pierce of North Carolina Central says the president can avoid additional agitation by nominating a moderate to the bench.

“It’s not necessary politically for him to do otherwise,” Pierce said.

By nominating someone who is more moderate to left on ideology, the president can avoid a Republican filibuster, said Howard University Law School Dean Kurt Schmoke. 

A filibuster would be problematic, Schmoke told “The president’s nominee would need 60 votes, and he doesn’t have that number.”

Shaw said because the high court is now more right and center, “there is no true left.”

There are no justices currently on the court similar to Thurgood Marshall or William J. Brennan.

Marshall, who, as a lawyer, won 14 of 19 cases argued before the high court, was the voice of Americans often overlooked by system. Brennan was an outspoken opponent of the death penalty and a supporter of abortion rights.

Those who opposed the recent nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor tried to paint her as a liberal, but Shaw said those arguments were only an attempt to set boundaries …..for subsequent nominations.

“If Judge Sotomayor is a liberal, any nominee whose range of views is to the left of hers, would definitely be viewed as a liberal,” he said.