Black Atlanta women judges say Ketanji Brown Jackson scrutiny familiar

As Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, sat before the Judiciary Committee in late March, Judge Tadia Whitner forgot a very important tenet of social media.

“I have not learned not to read the comments. I am obsessed with the comments,” said Whitner.

She knew the confirmation hearings were focused on politics. But for Whitner, the first Black female judge for the Superior Court of Gwinnett County, the comments on social media by everyday American people were triggering.

When she was appointed to the bench in July 2019 by Gov. Brian Kemp, Whitner was subjected to the refrain commonly lobbed at Black people who are elevated to positions of power or accepted into elite institutions: “You only got it because you are Black.”

“I feel like I did everything white America said I had to do, and I still heard that,” Whitner said.

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Judge Tadia Whitner, appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp and the first African American to serve on Gwinnett County’s Superior Court bench. (Phil Skinner/AJC)

Judge Tadia Whitner, appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp and the first African American to serve on Gwinnett County’s Superior Court bench. (Phil Skinner/AJC)

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Judge Tadia Whitner, appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp and the first African American to serve on Gwinnett County’s Superior Court bench. (Phil Skinner/AJC)

Whitner is among 23 Black female Superior Court judges in the eight-county metro Atlanta area that rule on important criminal and civil cases. The women, who represent about 10% of such area judges, are a small but supportive sorority that rely on each other for feedback and fellowship.

Jackson is on track to be confirmed as early as Thursday as the Supreme Court’s 116th justice — and its first Black woman — after three Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney and Susan Collins, joined Democrats to advance her nomination.

For so many Black women, watching Jackson field questions from senators — ranging from asking her to define the word “woman” to insisting that she rate her religious faithfulness on a scale from 1 to 10 — elicited feelings of pride, even if it was somewhat bittersweet.

Judge Kellie Hill, who in 2020 became the first Black person sworn into the Cobb County Superior Court, said that while Jackson’s “qualifications speak for themselves,” she was not surprised by her treatment, “because of what I went through.”

Hill graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and in 1989, after Rutgers University Law School, moved to Atlanta to get a job at a firm.

Initially she worked for a temp agency and marketing research firm. When a law firm finally decided to hire her, it was as a receptionist.

“I would hope that people would focus on my qualifications, but I know that there were those who could not see beyond my race and gender,” Hill said. “When I walk into a room, it is obvious that I am a Black woman.”

If confirmed, Jackson will be the only Justice on the bench, other than Justice Sonia Sotomayor, with experience as a federal trial-court judge and the only Justice with experience as a public defender.

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Judge Shondeana Crews is the first African American woman to serve as Superior Court Judge in DeKalb County. She was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp. Image provided by Shondeana Morris.

Credit: Image credit: Shondeana Morris

Judge Shondeana Crews is the first African American woman to serve as Superior Court Judge in DeKalb County. She was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp. Image provided by Shondeana Morris.

Credit: Image credit: Shondeana Morris

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Judge Shondeana Crews is the first African American woman to serve as Superior Court Judge in DeKalb County. She was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp. Image provided by Shondeana Morris.

Credit: Image credit: Shondeana Morris

Credit: Image credit: Shondeana Morris

Judge Shondeana Morris said Jackson’s experience is one of her most appealing and remarkable qualities. “She has been in the trenches,” said Morris, a Superior Court judge in DeKalb County and Gov. Brian Kemp’s first African American judicial appointment.

Morris, a University of Georgia graduate who earned her law degree at Mercer, said her own path to the bench began one summer during her high school years when she was visiting her great grandparents near Cordele. She had watched as her great grandmother, who could not read or write, signed an ‘X’ on legal papers that they later learned gave away a substantial amount of the family property.

“I saw the devastation on her face and the negative impact it had on our family,” said Morris who served as a prosecutor for Fulton County and state court judge before being appointed to Superior Court.

Hill has a similar resume. Before being elected in Cobb County, she spent 22 years as a prosecutor in DeKalb and Cobb counties and three years in private practice. As a prosecutor, she was the face of some of the biggest cases in metro Atlanta, including the case in 2008 when Brian Nichols was convicted on 54 counts for his 2005 killing spree in the Fulton County Courthouse.

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Cobb County Superior Court Judge Kellie Hill

Credit: Cobb County Superior Court Judge Kellie Hill

Cobb County Superior Court Judge Kellie Hill

Credit: Cobb County Superior Court Judge Kellie Hill

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Cobb County Superior Court Judge Kellie Hill

Credit: Cobb County Superior Court Judge Kellie Hill

Credit: Cobb County Superior Court Judge Kellie Hill

Hill was 13 years old when she met Shirley Tolentino, the first Black woman to serve on the New Jersey Superior Court. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be a judge.

“Meeting her was extremely impactful,” Hill said. ”To see someone who looks like me, who is a judge, was not an everyday occurrence. But in 2022, we are still acknowledging firsts.”

Whitner is sometimes surprised by the reaction she gets when she shares her occupation.

“I went to Howard University and have this family of Black women that are judges, I forget that there are not a lot of us around,” she said, noting that only 5% of attorneys are African American.

Morris recalled a time when she took an Uber and the Black woman driver asked her what she did for a living.

“You don’t look like a judge,” was the woman’s response.

“How does a judge look?” Morris replied.

“All the judges I have seen have been old men,” said the driver.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of the article incorrectly described Shondeana Morris as the first Black female judge to be appointed to Superior Court DeKalb County. Morris was Gov. Brian Kemp’s first Black judicial appointment. The article has been updated.