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Sherrilyn Ifill explains the racial politics behind the Supreme Court nomination process during Public Interest Week lunch talk

By Vandana Menon

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (NAACP LDF), spoke at Penn Law on October 4 to faculty and staff about the modern Supreme Court nomination process and the implications of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination.

At the lunch event hosted by the Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC) for this year’s Public Interest Week, Honorary Fellow-in-Residence Ifill announced that she is working on a book about the origins of the modern Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Her book focuses on the way in which anxiety about race in the United States created the nomination process that is followed today.

“We pretend that these monumental questions of who sits on the Supreme Court have nothing to do with how equality is defined in our country,” she said. “We pretend that it’s all about these other issues that are not deeply relevant to equality, dignity and opportunity for people in this country.”

She traced the modern process of nomination back to 1955. According to her, the turning point was the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which ended the racial segregation of children in public schools. The other significant case she discussed was Rice v. Sioux City Memorial Park Cemetery, which was unfolding during the same time period. It was a case filed against a cemetery which refused to bury a veteran because of his Native American heritage.

The significance of these civil rights cases were undermined immediately after they were passed by changes in the Supreme Court structure, Ifill said, as Justice Robert Jackson’s sudden death paved the way for Justice John Marshall Harlan II’s nomination. Once passed, both judgments were affected by the politics behind the subsequent Supreme Court nominations — illustrating Ifill’s point on the importance of who is appointed to the Supreme Court and during what sociopolitical context.

Ifill also talked about the  NAACP LDF’s opposition to Justice Clarence Thomas and said that issues like abortion, affirmative action and disparate impact hang in the balance if Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed.

The NAACP-LDF releases a “deep dive report” on the civil rights background of every Supreme Court nominee, and Ifill mentioned that the 97-page report on Judge Kavanaugh left her with deep concerns, as a lot of his information has not yet been made public. The report was released in August, before the allegations made by Prof. Christine Blasey Ford became public.

Discussing the current controversy surrounding Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, she said that the legal community should be more introspective on the larger implications of his possible appointment.

“We should start thinking about what the implications are of suggesting that if someone who seeks a seat on the United States Supreme Court testifies under oath and we later learn that testimony is false, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “We should,  as a community of professionals, decide what that means for our profession.”