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UH Law Center Professor Knake Jefferson says Supreme Court term now underway shaping up to be one of the nation’s most contentious

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Professor Renee Knake Jefferson

Oct. 7, 2021 - On Monday, which marked the beginning of the new U.S. Supreme Court term, University of Houston Law Center Professor Renee Knake Jefferson presented a special lecture to discuss research from her book Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court. She also shared observations about what to watch in the new term. The discussion was presented by The Elizabeth D. Rockwell Center on Ethics & Leadership at the Hobby School of Public Affairs and the Law Center.

Jefferson, who also serves as Joanne and Larry Doherty Chair in Legal Ethics and Director of Law Center Outcomes and Assessments, opened her lecture by calling to mind the history and significance of the first Monday at the Supreme Court. The beginning of the term has been the first Monday of October since 1916. In line with speaking about firsts, Jefferson also discussed monumental firsts in the history of SCOTUS, including naming the first Chief Justice, the first Jewish justice, the first African-American justice, the first female justice and more. During the time of COVID-19, SCOTUS held its first live-streamed oral argument on May 5, 2020. Monday’s opening happened back in the court, though only the justices, lawyers, and the press were permitted to attend.

Jefferson kicked off her discussion about the significance of shortlists by referencing she conducted a 2012 study about the media’s depiction of Supreme Court nominees. Jefferson found that media coverage was gendered in many ways.  When talking about the first female who was shortlisted, Florence Allen in 1937, Jefferson said at the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was working on a plan to increase the court to 15 justices. Also at that time, there were no restrooms for women in the courtroom.

“Women were very much excluded from professional life,” she said.

Over time, although several women had been shortlisted by various presidents, there wouldn’t be the first female justice until 1981 when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed.

As far as what to watch during the 2021 term, Jefferson said there have been 39 cases granted as of Sept. 30, and highly contentious issues such as the death penalty, abortion, gun rights and separation of church and state will be prominent in the new term. She also discussed shadow dockets, which have been primarily used for issuing routine orders in the past but since 2017 were being used at a far greater pace. She said the Department of Justice sought emergency relief at a much higher rate during the Trump presidency.

Some other things to watch include SCOTUS reform, the potential retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer and Biden’s next shortlist.

“It will be a controversial term,” she said.

During the question-and-answer period, topics such as polarization and politicization of the court were raised. Jefferson said indeed the court has become increasingly politicized, particularly shortlists. She also said it was during the Nixon era that shortlists started to become political tools to secure votes. She also addressed questions about how shortlisted women have been portrayed in the media, from Justice Sonia Sotomayor to Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

An award-winning scholar, Jefferson's research focus areas include gender and leadership, innovation in the regulation of legal services, and access to justice reforms. She is an internationally recognized expert on professional responsibility and legal ethics and regularly appears on national news outlets. Her work has been cited in briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court, prestigious law reviews such as the Yale Law Journal, and news publications such as the Associated Press, Bloomberg Law, New York Times, Politico and more.

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