Celebrating Black History Month: Inspiring Legal Trailblazers
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Black History Month: A look at the impacts made by Ketjani Brown Jackson and John Mercer Langston

black history month, ketjani brown jackson, john mercer langston, trailblazers. legal titans, african american, black history, goldlaw

In our final Black History Month tribute, GOLDLAW is recognizing the careers and achievements of two more African American legal trailblazers, current United States Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, and John Mercer Langston, a pioneering legal leader.

Ketanji Brown Jackson

The daughter of a lawyer and educator, Ketanji Brown Jackson was born in Washington D.C. and raised in Miami. While attending high school at Maimi Palmetto HS, she won a national oratory title as a senior, and has said that experience “was the one activity that best prepared me for future success in law and in life.” She received her undergraduate and legal degrees at Harvard University, where she served as an editor on the Harvard Law Review. Later, she clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer, whose seat she later assumed on the Supreme Court. Her accomplishments in the legal space are staggering. Here are just a few of them:

1. First African American Woman on the United States Supreme Court

Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice by President Joe Biden in 2022 represented a historic milestone. As the first African American woman to serve on the highest court in the U.S., she broke a significant barrier in the judiciary, marking a pivotal moment in the history of our country.

2. She has a Distinguished Career as a Federal Judge

Prior to her Supreme Court appointment, Jackson served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, one of the most influential appellate courts in the country. She also served as a District Court Judge in the District of Columbia, where she was known for her thorough and reasoned opinions, showcasing her commitment to justice and the rule of law.

3. Background as a Public Defender

Jackson is the first Supreme Court justice to have served as a public defender. This aspect of her career is particularly noteworthy because it brings a unique perspective to the Supreme Court, highlighting her deep understanding of the criminal justice system and the challenges faced by the underrepresented. Her experience as a public defender underscores her commitment to ensuring fair representation and justice for all individuals, regardless of their social or economic status.

4. Advocate for Sentencing Reform

Throughout her career, Jackson has been an advocate for sentencing reform. Her rulings and opinions have often reflected a nuanced understanding of the complexities of the criminal justice system, emphasizing the need for sentences that are just and proportional. Her approach to sentencing has been informed by a belief in the potential rehabilitation and the importance of considering the individual circumstances of each case.

5. Significant Legal Opinions on Government Accountability and Transparency

During her tenure on the federal bench, Ketanji Brown Jackson authored several important decisions related to government accountability, transparency, and the separation of powers. For example, in Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives v. McGahn, she asserted that “Presidents are not kings,” and emphasized the importance of checks and balances by ruling that White House officials are not immune from congressional subpoena.

Ketanji Brown Jackson’s achievements rank her as maybe the most notable female lawyer/jurist in U.S. history. Her active engagement in advocacy, education, and public discourse have made her one of the most influential figures in the fight for equality and justice in modern day America.

John Mercer Langston

Born free in Louisa County, Virginia in 1829, Langston was an abolitionist, attorney, educator, activist, diplomat, and politician. He was the first Representative of color from Virginia, and the founding dean of the law school at Howard University. Here are some of Langston’s most notable accomplishments:

1. He was the First Black Lawyer in Ohio

Langston became the first Black man to be admitted to the bar in Ohio in 1854. His admission to practice law was a groundbreaking achievement at a time when most African Americans faced severe legal and societal restrictions. This milestone not only marked the beginning of his distinguished legal career but also paved the way for future generations of Black attorneys in the U.S.

2. Election to Public Office

In 1855, Langston was elected as the town clerk of Brownhelm, Ohio, making him one of the first African Americans ever elected to public office in the United States. His election was a significant milestone in the fight for Black political representation and civil rights.

3. Founding Dean of Howard Law School

Langston played a crucial role in the establishment of Howard University’s Law School, serving as its first dean from 1868 to 1870. Under his leadership, the law school became an important institution for the education of Black lawyers, many of whom would go on to play significant roles in the civil rights movement and other aspects of American public life.

4. Diplomatic Service

Langston’s achievements also extended to the international arena. He served as a U.S. diplomat to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, showcasing his skills and dedication beyond the borders of the United States. His diplomatic service helped to strengthen the relationships between the United States and these nations, demonstrating his commitment to promoting America’s interests abroad.

5. First President of Virginia State University

Langston was instrumental in the founding of Virginia State University, were he served as its first president from 1888 – 1897. His leadership in establishing and guiding this historically black university underscored his lifetime commitment to education and the empowerment of African Americans through learning.

John Mercer Langston’s life and work embodied the struggle for justice and equality. His legal practice, educational leadership, political achievements, and diplomatic service collectively represent a legacy of pioneering efforts that have had a lasting impact on American society, particularly in advancing the rights and opportunities for African Americans.

Together, the legacies of Langston and Brown Jackson embody the enduring struggle for equality and justice in America. Their lives and careers remind us of the power of perseverance and the impact one individual can have in paving the way for future generations. As we reflect on their contributions, we are reminded of the ongoing work required to achieve a more just and equitable society, and the role that dedicated public servants play in moving us closer to that ideal.