Following a rather surprising move by Senate Democrats, Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker made history on Tuesday when they were named to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee has been around for 201 years, but Harris and Booker are only the second and third black lawmakers to be appointed to it in its long history. As a result, it's the first time that two black people have been on the committee at the same time.
The only other black lawmaker to have served on the Senate Judiciary Committee was former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, who was on the committee for one term back in the 1990s. Moseley-Braun also made history in other ways, too, becoming the first black woman to be elected to the Senate. It has been roughly two decades since Moseley-Braun's time on the Judiciary Committee, so when Minnesota Sen. Al Franken announced his resignation — thereby vacating a seat on the committee — the Congressional Black Caucus quickly came up with two suggestions for his replacement.
The CBC encouraged Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to fill Franken's spot with either Harris or Booker, and to the caucus' pleasant surprise, Democrats appointed both senators to the committee. Alabama Sen. Doug Jones' December victory over Roy Moore made this possible, according to Fortune, by limiting Republicans' advantage on the Senate's Judiciary and Finance Committees.
In December, CBC chair Rep. Cedric Richmond wrote a letter to Schumer, in which he argued that Harris' and Booker's perspectives as African-Americans are "sorely needed in conversations and initiatives already underway." Richmond wrote:
In the current political and legal environment, Black America faces the greatest threats to its rights and safety since the post-Reconstruction era. Given this pivotal moment in American history, the CBC urges you and the Senate Democratic Caucus to appoint a CBC Member to join Ranking Member Feinstein and others in defense of our democracy, our values and our constitutional rights.
Although the CBC jumped at the opportunity to appoint one of their members to the committee soon after Franken announced his resignation, they were not the only ones calling for more representative representation. Civil rights groups, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the National Action Network, also lobbied for the appointment of a black lawmaker to the committee. Leaders of these and other groups wrote a letter to Schumer in December, pointing out that the committee should reflect the diversity of both Congress — where a record number of black senators are now serving — and the country.
Harris and Booker have both issued statements announcing their appointments, and describing the goals they have for their new positions. Harris pledged "to continue to provide a voice for our most vulnerable communities, work on issues I’ve handled since my earliest days in the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, and defend California in the face of this Administration’s repeated attacks on our values." Booker, meanwhile, promised to use his seat on the committee to fight for civil rights while directly calling out the president.
"As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I will make it my mission to check and balance President Trump and Attorney General Sessions," Booker said in his statement. "At every turn I will strive to advance the cause of reforming a broken justice system stacked against the poor and people of color, and to bend the arc of our nation’s history further towards equal justice for all."
Their new appointments have also further fueled rumors that Harris and Booker will put themselves forward as candidates in the 2020 presidential election. For many months, they have both been outspoken critics of the Trump administration, and their names arose in discussions of the 2020 election long before they were appointed to the Senate Judiciary Committee.