Black women lawyers and judges applaud Jackson’s confirmation

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Markeishia Smith has made it her New Year’s resolution to disconnect from the media.

Smith, a Haines City attorney, had honored that commitment until the end of March. It was then that her husband, Vernel Smith Jr., suggested that she make an exception to watch the televised confirmation hearings of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, then under consideration for a seat on the United States Supreme Court.

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Smith, a black woman, said she was grateful to have listened to the coverage. She was in an exultant mood Friday afternoon as she reflected on Jackson’s confirmation a day earlier as the first black female justice in the Supreme Court’s 232-year history.

“When I saw her in the hearings, in the process, my heart swelled,” Smith said. “That’s the best way I can describe it. I felt immense pride. I’ve seen the performance — and the performance matters. It is important in all areas of my life. To see someone else who looks like me, at a time in his career when he’s considered a candidate for the highest court in the land, that’s SCOTUS. It’s everyone’s dream at some point, even if you think, “I want to be a corporate lawyer,” it crosses your mind at some point, “Could I be on the Supreme Court?” Or, ‘Can I go to the Supreme Court?’ Because these are the cases that shape the very foundation of our nation.

Smith joined other black female attorneys and judges with Polk County ties to celebrate Jackson’s confirmation. President Joe Biden has named Jackson, who spent his youth in Miami, to succeed Justice Stephen Breyer, who will retire this summer.

Jackson will be the third black judge, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, among the 115 who have served on the nation’s highest court. She is the sixth woman to join the bench.

Although most Republicans opposed Jackson’s confirmation, the Senate ratified his ascension to the Supreme Court by a vote of 53 to 47.

Judge Cassandra Denmark

Smith, 40, grew up in Lake Wales and Lake Hamilton and graduated from Haines City High School. She became a teacher and then principal of Polk County Public Schools before earning a law degree from Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando.

She worked for a year for a law firm in Winter Haven before opening her own office in downtown Haines City. His practice handles personal injury, real estate and probate cases.

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Smith said previous generations of Black Americans have witnessed historic changes in society, and she sees Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court as another milestone.

She said only 6% of lawyers in Florida are black women.

“It makes me feel even more comfortable in this element where, let’s face it, the justice system is dominated by white men,” she said. “So to see one of the 6% – because that’s what I always tell people, when I look at my dream that I had, that I can’t believe I’m in the 6%, n So one of the 6% beat all odds, stayed humble and is going to sit on SCOTUS. It’s absolutely exhilarating.

Of the 28 circuit judges on Florida’s Bartow-based 10th Judicial Circuit, three are black women: Cassandra L. Denmark, Dana Y. Moore and Torea Spohr. There are no black women among the circuit’s 12 county judges.

The Second District Court of Appeals, which is based in Lakeland but holds hearings in Tampa, has no black women among its 16 judges.

Judge Dana Y. Moore

Denmark, a former director of legal affairs for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, ran a law firm in Bartow from 2013 to 2020 before being elected a judge. She is assigned to juvenile court.

Moore began her career as a lawyer in 2003 and was elected to the 10th Judicial Circuit in 2018. She handles civil cases. Spohr, who previously operated a criminal defense firm in Lakeland, was elected in 2020. She is assigned to family court.

In response to a request from The Ledger, Denmark and Moore emailed a joint statement.

“As we witness the historic confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court of the United States, as black women lawyers, we cannot help but feel a sense of pride and joy,” the justices wrote. “Judge Jackson’s rise to the highest court in the land as the sixth woman and first black woman to serve will inspire generations to come.”

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Marissa Constant, a former assistant public defender, has a firm in Bartow that handles criminal defense, personal injury, real estate and business law.

“Representation is so important, especially in the black community,” Constant said via email. “I’ve always wanted to see a day like this, and that day has finally arrived. It’s so exciting and such a powerful moment in history! I’m so moved by this moment and overwhelmed with joy for the judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. She’s such an inspiration and I’m so proud.”

Florida Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, is a Winter Haven native and alumnus of Lake Gibson High School in Lakeland. She graduated with honors from Harvard University and earned a law degree from Georgetown.

Rep.  Driskell Fence

Driskell served as clerk to Judge Anne Conway of the U.S. District Court for the Intermediate District of Florida and is now an attorney with Carlton Fields in Tampa.

“Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is eminently qualified and an excellent jurist whose presence will only enrich our esteemed Supreme Court of the United States,” Driskell said in an emailed statement. “Her confirmation represents the realization of a dream that had been delayed too long for black female lawyers like me. It took 177 years since our federal court system was established for America to appoint its first black female federal judge, the late Hon. Constance Baker Motley in 1966.

She added: “It has taken over 55 years since then for our country to appoint a black woman to our highest court. While we clearly still have a long way to go before appointments like Justice Brown Jackson’s are the rule and not the exception, all Americans should celebrate this leap forward in our history. I commend President Joe Biden for honoring his campaign promise and bringing to fruition this historic momentous occasion.”

One of Driskell’s mentors, former state senator Artthenia Joyner, was born in Lakeland and in 1970 became the city’s first black female lawyer. Joyner is still practicing in Tampa at age 79.

“As a black woman who was the fifth black female attorney in the state of Florida in 1969, when I passed the bar, this is a colossal, exciting and exhilarating day for me,” Joyner said Thursday by phone. “Fifty-three years ago, I just couldn’t wait to have the first black female judge in Hillsborough County, let alone sit on the highest court in this land.”

Marissa Constant

Joyner said Jackson deserves to be on the Supreme Court, and not just as a representative of black women.

“She’s eminently qualified,” Joyner said. “And she showed the nation that she had the greatest temper ever to have endured all those hours of scrutiny, questioning and interruptions by some by Republican senators. … This woman truly personifies grace under fire. She was exceptional – phenomenal, really, that’s what she was – through this process. And I’m so proud and happy today.

Both Joyner and Smith said Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination offered a signal of encouragement and hope to black girls who may be considering legal careers.

“The effect is going to be a sea change and a ripple effect across the country, where black girls, white girls, Latino girls, and all girls of color can see that ‘I can do it; she did,” Joyner said. “She managed to overcome all the stereotypes, the obstacles, all the incessant questioning from these senators, but she came out illustrating the best. … All black and Latina girls and white girls, everyone, this is going to inspire them to pursue their dreams, to know that anything is possible.

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Smith, a mother of three boys, made a similar point. She said it was particularly inspiring to see Jackson agree to appear in Senate confirmation hearings with natural hair and ignore the pressure to assimilate in his appearance.

Smith said she expects Jackson’s presence on the Supreme Court to bolster the representation of black women among lawyers in her home state.

“I believe this is going to completely change the way our black girls see themselves in the legal field,” Smith said. “They will know that they can go to the highest point. This is how I feel. I think it’s going to have a direct impact and affect that number and drive that number up. The longer she stays there, the more influence she has. And the more his power grows – I believe it will spread like wildfire. They will read about it at school. They will do book reviews on her.

Gary White can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

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