Women in Law
Left to right: Jane Aiken ’77, Courtney Chenette ’09, and Keeshea Turner Roberts ’96
Early summer 2022 was momentous for the U.S. Supreme Court: Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black female justice, was confirmed. And a series of controversial rulings, particularly the reversal of Roe v. Wade, altered history. Three Hollins alumnae who are attorneys and law professors shared their insights on this important moment.
What does Justice Jackson’s appointment mean to the Court? To women? People of color?
Keeshea Turner Roberts ’96: For women, it’s a plus—the more women, the better, especially now as women’s rights are being diluted. Judge Jackson is also the first public defender on the Supreme Court. She’ll be instrumental with writing leading opinions in criminal law and capital punishment cases. As a person of color, I literally cried when she was sworn in. It was historic for me as a little girl thinking about who I wanted to be, and I wanted to be on the Supreme Court. To see someone who looks like me, who has the background I do as an African American woman, I think that’s important.
Courtney Chenette ’09: As Gloria Steinem says, it’s hard to be what you don’t see. Representation on the court matters a great deal to students who are still looking for role models in legal careers and how they can make a difference from within our existing systems.
Jane Aiken ’77: It’s important for the world to see a Black woman on the court. Having women of color changes the conversation among white people, so that’s a good thing. The background and experience that she brings to the court are unique. It gives our students something to be excited about that there are many paths for more diverse people and more diverse legal fields to the top of the court system.
It’s a dramatic time for the Supreme Court, with numerous controversial decisions and the reversal of law in the case of Roe v. Wade. What is the trend that caused it? What’s the path forward?
Jane: It is hard to take in what happened [with Roe v. Wade], not just because this is a right that we have always assumed for almost 50 years, but the idea of taking away a right is not something that the Supreme Court has ever done. It is stunning that the pro-life movement managed to make this happen when over 60% of Americans believe that people should have access to abortion. All of this is about an anti-abortion strategy that ensured that the justices appointed were committed to this single issue beyond all others. We really need to learn from their strategy and reassess our reliance on the Supreme Court.
Courtney: It’s so important for our students to go to primary sources to deeply understand each step of the way, the evolution of the court, and to read the dissents and concurrences, not just the majority opinions. How the Court arrives at each decision matters. And if we don’t have the legal avenues Roe provided to arrive at opinions and decisions anymore, then the rest of the law will shift and change accordingly. Every case in the system is interconnected.
Keeshea: This plan—to get rid of Roe—was 40 or 50 years in the making. Liberals weren’t paying attention to what the conservative agenda was. There was a plan and a purpose to support their ideological agenda. With the election of Donald J. Trump and the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, you could see the push to make the Court more conservative. [Liberals] have a lot of catching up to do. I think they need to be more aggressive. Maybe it’s time for a new political party or a new way of thinking about jurisprudence. Why don’t we take aspects of conservatism and liberalism views of jurisprudence and merge them into something that is totally different?
What does the Roe v. Wade decision mean for future rulings on landmark cases?
Jane: I spoke to my law students last fall and said that we’re going to lose Roe because of the makeup of the Court. We’re now in a place where you can assume, based on the Justices’ beliefs, how it’s going to go. Is the court now a legislative branch of our government but with lifetime tenure? I think we are going to feel this over time, and it’s going to be staggering. People have really underestimated what a disruptive decision this is.
Courtney: To read the dissents, see the composition of the court change over time, and know what each Justice has written about substantive due process over the course of the last several terms, it is not surprising. This is going to be a really pivotal time for the law and our students. I anticipate student interest will refocus from federal law to state and local. We’re going to have students thinking less nationally in the short term, but hopefully, strategic state and local goals will be a galvanizing push to reimagine those national impacts. There’s renewed interest, and students realize that their state constitution is another source of laws, rights, and protections—that the court down the street might be the place where things that they care about are going to happen in the interim.
Keeshea: You had a President [Trump] who didn’t win the popular vote and took several key Supreme Court seats and basically made the court his own. I think we should look at whether the Electoral College needs to be revamped. The president should not be a person who didn’t win the popular vote. I also think we should think about increasing the number of Supreme Court judges. There’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that puts a limit on judges. You could have five Republicans, Democrats, and one person in the middle so one party doesn’t create a supermajority. You also could have term limits for the Supreme Court justices.
What about the idea of the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, that justices’ own beliefs don’t have any bearing on the rulings?
Jane: I think law is in crisis right now. Look at what’s happening with the January 6 hearings and the failure to indict people, the degree to which people think they have a right to engage in violent acts in order to vindicate something they think has been wrong. Every law-based institution is challenged right now. It becomes unpredictable chaos.
Courtney: Ultimately, what gives the Supreme Court its power is that we believe in it. The Supreme Court doesn’t have the force of an army to send out, right? I teach stare decisis at the beginning of every class. [Definition: When a court makes its decision in alignment with the previous court’s decision on a ruling, ‘to stand by things decided,’ in Latin]. The idea is central to legal learning and practice, that precedent is going to be treated in a predictable way.
Jane: The Supreme Court has replaced it with originalism, and it gives them cover for not following recent precedent. Stare decisis doesn’t mean anything anymore.
Keeshea: I do fear for the legitimacy of the court that has basically blown away 50 years of precedent. What other rights are in the sights of the justices? The Dobbs decision has ripple effects beyond Roe v. Wade. This requires everyone, especially lawyers, to be vigilant about securing sacred Constitutional rights. As a new law professor, it’s challenging trying to figure out how to teach family law and other areas of the law. The new reality is that basically what [the Supreme Court] is saying is, if it’s not written in the text of the U.S. Constitution, your rights can be taken away from you. If you look at the constitution, people of color and women had no rights. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, particularly the 14th Amendment and due process could all go away. How do we make them more permanent?
How do we inspire the next generation of female lawyers?
Jane: We need to teach people the lawyer skills of stakeholder analysis and building coalitions. We are going to have to step back and say, okay, how do we have an impact and how can we join together and overlook some of our differences in order for us to be operating as a pressure point for these legislators? There’s not a law school in the country that says to the world, “we teach people state and local law,” because the school is worried it’ll make them parochial. And right now that’s the only thing that matters.
Keeshea: Hopefully, I lead by example. As a professor, I have to be neutral and present both sides. I have to teach students how to think outside the box, that the law is constantly changing. I want to inspire them to get involved. Even on a local level or state level, you still have powers.
Courtney: We need to prepare students to think across disciplines to ensure that they have the skills to navigate the unpredictable. Our students are acutely aware that the laws of the present shape the future that they will or won’t have. Students will reimagine how our systems look, in their work and with their presence. That’s why Justice Jackson’s addition to the court is so important, to continue all our students’ abilities to see themselves within legal systems. Even when they feel unseen by that system right now. I want them to have every opportunity I had to complete my legal education and do this work.
Jane: Most law schools now are more than 50% women. But we still lose a lot of women in high-powered jobs because they are forced to make the choice between being a mother and being a lawyer. Representation only means something if the power that it confers can be manifest in settings in which that power is honored.
Courtney: Despite an increased number of female law students, vertical discrimination within the profession continues to shape who actually is able to attain and sustain power. COVID-19 impacted legal workplaces, just like every workplace. Women were slower to return to the workforce through the pandemic because of lasting changes to schools and childcare. This means that there’s a potential for my current students to go into law firms that look more like before I joined the legal profession.
What are other legal issues that the next generation of lawyers are deeply passionate about?
Keeshea: When I was at Howard University School of Law, my students were very interested in housing rights and neighborhood gentrification. We also talked some about critical race theory. I think that some states’ response to critical race theory, which isn’t taught at the K-12 level but at college or law school, is a racist dog whistle. Unlike in Germany, where they are very frank about the Holocaust, sometimes in America, we don’t want to have that conversation [about slavery and systemic racism]. We’re not giving either child, Black or white, any favors by not having an honest discussion. You can still love your nation and criticize things that it does. We need to look deeply into the law and make sure systems and processes work better for everyone.
Courtney: My students are strategizing how the law can better reflect and represent the families that they’re already forming and the environment that they want to live in—schools, housing, health care, digitally. How those spaces can reflect and represent their intersectional identities that the law may not currently recognize.
Jane: There are very few women who argue before the Supreme Court. There’s this little group of all men, and they’re the ones in charge of framing the issue. Well, that’s not working. Women have a bigger role to play. I try to get students to understand that law is just one of the tools at their disposal. They need that insight so that they can effectively mobilize communities. People [now] understand the value of voting and putting pressure on legislators and demanding that they respond appropriately. We now know that we can’t just let it rest with the law.
The Roe v. Wade reversal affects marginalized communities in a very big way. Is that something that concerns you and your students?
Courtney: Our students are motivated by the ethic of care and community because cases are ultimately about people. They’re acutely aware that people who can travel and have access to financial resources will have more choices. They’re thinking critically about race, class, disability, and gender and access to medical care, about being able to navigate not just the legal system, but all systems. And they’re absolutely thinking about how to mobilize, not just within the legal system, but beyond it. This is not a singular issue that is relegated just to one area of law or one type of case. It impacts education, immigration, work, family, criminal, and civil spaces. There is just no limit to the intersections, and our students will see this in every facet of their work and lives.
Jane: Black women with children will probably be the women most affected by this decision. They are more often poor, and already face higher risks of pregnancy complications or death related to pregnancy and childbirth. I am worried about states passing more and more laws criminalizing abortion. Women of color will be at higher risk of prosecution and incarceration. It is really important that those of us with wealth and privilege step up, especially because we can avoid some of the effects of this decision. We cannot afford to abandon any pregnant person seeking self-protection.
Keeshea: [The ruling] is going to have a huge impact on people of color. The maternal death rate for Black children and moms is extremely high. [Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women experience maternal mortality two to three times higher than that of white women.] There’s a concern that for people of color, neonatal and maternal care will be ignored. People of color will bear the brunt of the decision because they don’t have the means to go elsewhere for an abortion. I foresee an increase of children in foster care and in child abuse and neglect cases. There are ripple effects from this decision. There’s going to be more litigation as a result.
Are there other trends, judicial and legal issues, that are on your radar?
Jane: LGBTQ rights issues are at the forefront. The right to marriage could be taken away. I think religious rights are changing, too. Establishment of religion seems to have disappeared as a concern for this court. We are getting contradictory messages on the importance of state and local decision-making. The Court says election laws are to be left to state legislatures but laws on gun control are governed by federal law. The substantive due process rights are all on the table, but I’m worried about any right.
Courtney: The word ‘abortion’ is obviously not in the Constitution, but neither is family or education or love. My students are very familiar with my joke, asking if they read the footnotes or the glossary of the Constitution. Oh, wait, there aren’t footnotes or glossary. The court decisions—and precedent as we have known it—are the interpretation, the definition section. People rely on those interpretations. And when they can’t, the path forward must be redefined in other ways.
Keeshea: It’s a good time to be a lawyer because I think that there needs to be new ideas about how justice is rendered. It’s important that students are on the ground level and part of this. If nothing else, this should inspire women to go into policy work because they are needed. America is not a corporation, it’s a democracy, and we need to figure out what democracy means. We have to be concerned about the rise of white supremacy. The longer we ignore it, the more it will tear apart the fabric of our nation. We are dependent on each other, and we are dividing ourselves. It’s up to Generation X and the Millennials to say what things are and what they are going to be.
Sarah Achenbach ’88 is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.
Jane Aiken ’77, dean and professor of law, Wake Forest University School of Law; on sabbatical to work with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
- J.D., New York University
- L.L.M., Georgetown University
- Experiences: Blume Professor of Law, Vice Dean, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and other roles, Georgetown University; Founder, Community Justice Project, Georgetown University; William Van Cleve Professor of Law, Washington University in St. Louis; Fulbright Scholar, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal
Courtney Chenette ’09, assistant professor of political science and gender and women’s studies, pre-law advisor, Hollins University
- J.D., The Elisabeth Haub School of Law, Pace University
- Experiences: Assistant Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies, Hollins University; civil rights attorney; General Counsel, Reconstructing Hope; Attorney ballot monitor, 2020 Wisconsin presidential election recount and Georgia’s 2021 Senate runoff; New York University Revson LSPIN Fellow
Keeshea Turner Roberts ’96, assistant professor of law, Delaware Law School
- J.D. and a Certificate in Public Policy, Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law
- Graduate, John Payton Leadership Academy, Washington, D.C.
- 2021 Bellows Scholar, Association of American Law Schools’ Committee on Lawyering in the Public Interest
- Experiences: Judicial Law Clerk, Superior Court for the District of Columbia; Litigator, Neighborhood Legal Services Program, Washington, D.C.; Supervising Attorney and Adjunct Clinical Law Professor, Rising for Justice; Co-director, Civil Protection Order Project; Supervising Attorney and Adjunct Clinical Law Professor, Fair Housing Clinic, Howard University; Assistant Professor of Law, Widener University Delaware School of Law
Panelists spoke to Hollins Magazine through Zoom and by phone and answered identical questions to create this Q&A. All conversations were edited for length.
In several places throughout the interviews, responses from our alumnae panelists were shortened to fit our print limitations. We have included most of their extended responses in this online version.