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Hannah Brenner Johnson’s New Book Exposes Tragedy of Shortlisting

Hannah Brenner Johnson

“Fascinating and painstakingly researched. Shortlisted is a wake-up call about the persistence of gender inequality.”

One of many laudable reviews, this is how the Texas Bar Journal described California Western Professor Hannah Brenner Johnson’s new book, Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court, recently published in hardcover by New York University Press.

Co-authored by University of Houston Law Center Professor Renee Knake Jefferson, the book tells the inspiring and previously untold history of the women considered—but not selected—for the United States Supreme Court.

“This book was 10 years in the making,” reveals Brenner Johnson.

Back in 2010, Brenner Johnson and Jefferson were new law school professors and colleagues at the time President Obama was faced with two vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court. He ultimately named two women—Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

The media attention surrounding the nominations of Kagan and Sotomayor intrigued Brenner Johnson.

“I can recall reading major newspaper articles about their nominations,” says Brenner Johnson. “These were two women who were highly qualified for the Supreme Court. They came to be nominated from very distinguished careers, and yet the media focused on things that were perhaps not, from my vantage point, so relevant as to whether they would make a great Justice on the Supreme Court.”

Brenner Johnson recalls that the media focused on things like both women’s single status, their appearance, and their sexuality. Newspapers reported on questions like who would accompany them to “fancy” dinners at the White House if they did not have a husband or a significant other.

Brenner Johnson and Jefferson began exchanging emails, expressing their incredible discontent at the way the media was focusing its attention on things that had no bearing on whether or not these women would be qualified to serve the nation’s highest court.

“Through those email conversations we said, we’re law professors, we’re academics, we’re researchers, so rather than just complain about these representations in the media, why don’t we study the problem? And so we did,” recalls Brenner Johnson.

They set about the business of exploring, empirically, how the media portrays nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, and they did so going back to the early 1970s.

They pulled 4,000 articles that had been published in the Washington Post and the New York Times about nominees to the Supreme Court. Then they put together and trained a team of research assistants—law students at that time—who had the task of reading all 4,000 articles and coding them for a series of variables.

“We wanted to know everything from who was writing the article, to whether the author referenced the marital status or appearance of the nominee mentioned in the article,” says Brenner Johnson.

“We thought that if we could get a sense of how the media portrays nominees to the Court in this unique, unusual public context, we might understand how women in the legal profession are faring on the ground.”

Embedded in all of those articles that they read and coded was one that stood out. It was an article appearing in the New York Times in the early 1970s, and it was written about a judge from California named Mildred Lillie.

They learned from this article that California Superior Court Justice Mildred Lillie had been shortlisted to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Nixon. Brenner Johnson and Jefferson were surprised and shocked on several fronts.

First, they had never heard of Lillie. And second, they were unaware of any other women who had been shortlisted before Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Court in 1981.

They were also shocked that the article about Lillie commented on what she looked like in a bathing suit and that it was fortunate she had no children, for how could a woman possibly balance being a mother and a Justice on the Supreme Court?

“These notions sparked outrage between us,” says Brenner Johnson. “But the thing that was so significant about that article was that it opened up our inquiry that led us to ultimately identify nine women who had been shortlisted but never selected to the U.S. Supreme Court. That story informs how the book began.”

Fascinating as the history and collective stories of these nine remarkable women may be, there are a lot of things that readers can take away from the book even if they are not lawyers, says Brenner Johnson.

“This concept of shortlisting is not one that is limited to just the legal profession,” she says. “That the book focuses on women who were shortlisted for the U.S. Supreme Court does not make it irrelevant as a read for women across all professions. It is also especially relevant for those who are in positions of power who make the selection, to understand the dynamics that take place.”

There has been a lot of attention paid to issues of inequality and bias and discrimination, and yet these problems persist. It’s one thing to make a promise and a commitment to diversify one’s office or one’s workforce, and it’s another undertaking altogether to actually deliver on that promise, says Brenner Johnson.

“It is our hope that Shortlisted is a contribution to the literature, to the lives of lawyers and law students, and to the lives of people generally as a tool to help chip away at this very pervasive inequality that has persisted in the legal profession and beyond for far too long.”

12:45 p.m.–1:45 p.m.
Meet Professor Brenner Johnson and get more insight into Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court. Register to attend here.

Save 30% with coupon SHORTLISTED30. Order your copy here.