Constance Baker Motley (left) successfully represented James Meredith (center) in a 1962 case challenging the University of Mississippi’s refusal to admit him. In 1966, Motley became the first Black woman ever appointed to the federal judiciary.
Constance Baker Motley (left) successfully represented James Meredith (center) in a 1962 case challenging the University of Mississippi’s refusal to admit him. In 1966, Motley became the first Black woman ever appointed to the federal judiciary. (Bettmann via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden has pledged to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice Stephen Breyer, who is retiring from the court after nearly 28 years. If confirmed by the Senate, Biden’s nominee would become the first Black woman ever to serve on the nation’s highest court and one of a relatively small number to serve as a federal judge at any level.

Only 70 of the 3,843 people who have ever served as federal judges in the United States – fewer than 2% – have been Black women, according to a biographical database maintained by the Federal Judicial Center, the research and education arm of the federal judiciary. That figure includes single-race, multiracial and Hispanic or Afro-Latina Black women who have served on federal courts governed by Article III of the U.S. Constitution, including the Supreme Court, 13 appeals courts and 91 district courts. It excludes appointees to non-Article III territorial courts in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands.

President Joe Biden’s announcement that he would nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court has focused attention on the relatively small number of Black women who have ever served in the federal judiciary. This Pew Research Center analysis examines the history of Black women on the federal bench, including how appointment patterns have varied by president.

All statistics in this analysis come from a biographical database maintained by the Federal Judicial Center, the research and education arm of the federal judiciary. All figures are as of Feb. 1, 2022. The 70 Black women who have ever served as federal judges include those identifying as single-race, multiracial, or Hispanic or Afro-Latina and who served on federal courts governed by Article III of the U.S. Constitution, including the Supreme Court, 13 appeals courts and 91 district courts. It excludes appointees to non-Article III territorial courts in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands.

The first Black woman ever to serve on the federal bench was Constance Baker Motley, who was nominated by President Lyndon Johnson and took her seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1966. Motley was the district’s chief judge from 1982 to 1986 and died in 2005.

The number of Black women appointed to the federal judiciary has grown over time, especially during Democratic administrations. In fact, after little more than a year in office, Biden has already appointed more Black women to federal judgeships (11) than all but two presidents did during their entire tenures. Democrats Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who each served eight years in the White House, appointed 26 and 15 Black women to the federal judiciary, respectively.

A bar chart showing that Biden has already appointed more Black women to the federal bench than any GOP president

Among Republican presidents, George W. Bush appointed eight Black women during his eight-year tenure. George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump each appointed two during their four years in office, while Ronald Reagan appointed one Black woman in eight years. As previous Pew Research Center analyses have found, Republican presidents have generally been less likely than Democratic presidents to appoint federal judges who are women or racial and ethnic minorities.

Biden also stands out when looking at the percentage of each president’s appointed judges who have been Black women. As of Feb. 1, Black women have accounted for around a quarter (24%) of Biden’s appointed judges – far higher than the percentages for any other president, including Obama (8%) and Clinton (4%).

Historically, women have accounted for a relatively small share of all Black federal judges. Fewer than a third of all Black judges ever appointed (29%, or 70 of 239) have been women.

Most of the Black women who have served as federal judges to date have done so at the district court level. Only 13 have served at the appellate court level – that is, the powerful regional courts that are one step below the Supreme Court.

If Biden’s nominee joins the Supreme Court, she would be its third-ever Black justice (after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas) and its sixth-ever woman (after Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett). Overall, 115 justices have served on the Supreme Court.

John Gramlich  is a senior writer/editor at Pew Research Center.