Two women of color appeared as opposing counsel last month to make oral arguments in Brown v. Davenport, a case being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The moment was significant: Very few attorneys have an opportunity to argue before the high court, and the ones who do are often men and White.
One of those attorneys was Fadwa Hammoud, the solicitor general for Michigan who, on that day, became the first Arab-American Muslim woman to make an oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court. For Hammoud, who emigrated from Lebanon when she was 11 years old, it wasn’t just a milestone for her. It was also a victory for the family and community members in Dearborn, Michigan, and beyond, who supported her along the way.
It was because of that encouragement that she maintained confidence in her ability to become a lawyer, Hammoud told The 19th, even though many people of color, women and other underrepresented groups are shut out of opportunities to advance in legal professions. This includes attorneys who get the opportunity to argue before the Supreme Court.
One analysis from Bloomberg Law found that of the 156 times lawyers argued before the court between October 2019 and May 2020, women argued 20 times, or 13 percent.
In an interview with The 19th, Hammoud discussed her career, her experience at the Supreme Court and the need for intentional efforts to diversify who gets a voice in the country’s courtrooms.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Candice Norwood: To start off, I would love to learn more about you and your background.
Fadwa Hammoud: I think, like many people in this nation, I’m a product of an experience that is built into the fabric of the country: That’s the experience of the immigrants’ journey. I was born in Lebanon. I spent a little more than the first decade of my life there. I came of age in my adopted home Michigan, in what I always call one thread in the beautiful, ethnic tapestry of metro Detroit.
I have one brother who is actually now the chief of staff for [Rep.] Cori Bush. I’m very proud of him. So my immigrant parents now have their children working in public service. Growing up in Dearborn, I was surrounded by other first-generation families, I’d say from all over the world, and I think that had a profound impact on my career choices, on my worldview. I learned that … a welcoming society is built on empathy. I learned that from my community.
What sparked your interest in pursuing a career in law?
I think from a very young age, I have always been an advocate. Growing up in Lebanon, it was very difficult to witness injustices, especially from your government. I knew that I needed a seat at the table in order to change things. I decided to pursue a career in law not in spite of my background, but because of it.
I’d say as a Muslim American who came of age in the aftermath of 9/11, I had seen many members of my community, including my own parents, face vile attacks simply for being who they are. I wanted to be in a position — not just on this issue but many issues — to not only raise their voices, but to make it easier for them to raise their own voices. I wanted to continue to be an advocate for issues of what I would call injustices that were happening around me.
Oftentimes people from underrepresented communities do not grow up seeing someone in a particular field who looks like them, which can be a barrier. Did becoming a lawyer feel achievable when you were younger?
I didn’t have any attorneys in my family, but I tell you I come from a community where I never felt like if I had to achieve something that I would be doing it alone. All achievement if you dig deep enough is collective. It requires somebody to open up the door for you, to lend a helping hand.
I think that I had that, specifically from women that I’ve been surrounded by. I often looked up to women, specifically women of color in my journey. What was so nice about my journey is I knew that my parents came here because they believed that I could achieve and would be provided with opportunities to pursue my dreams if I wanted to. So never did I think that it was not something that was attainable. Even though it was difficult to adjust as a new American student, I did it, and I learned about many heroes, about civil rights movements and I think that helped me, even through the times of 9/11.
You mentioned a few of the challenges you’ve encountered in your life. Can you talk a little more about those experiences and how you worked through them?
I think that my journey mirrors that of many women. It’s a slow and steady march toward salvation for all of us women, but it’s often messier and more complicated than we remember. It contains inconvenient truths. I think in my journey I faced many of those obstacles, many of which if I didn’t have strong allies, including men like my father in my life, it would have been very difficult for me.
I remember my father took me to an attorney at one point. We didn’t know any lawyers at that time and he scheduled this meeting just for me to talk to somebody about law. This was a male attorney who didn’t address me at that time, he just spoke to my father and said that I should consider education. I have the utmost respect for teachers, but mainly [he said] how hard a career in law would be for a woman and how it would be nice to take the summers off if I wanted to eventually have a family.
I remember leaving with my father and in front of the attorney he said, ‘Many people will throw bricks your way. Take those bricks and lay them down as a strong foundation to keep on building.’ I’ll never forget that. My father actually surprised me in Washington D.C., right after my [Supreme Court] argument. He went there with my mom, my uncle, my husband and my kids, which was amazing. And I had so many people from the office there too. That was great support, again going back to the point that there’s no such thing as individual achievement.
That’s why it’s important for those of us who are represented, for those of us who are included, it’s not enough to be the first to do anything. It’s our job to make sure we’re not the last.
Going to the day that you argued before the Supreme Court, what stood out is that in addition to your historic argument, the attorney on the opposing side was a woman of color as well. What were your feelings about that day and having the opportunity to argue in front of the court?
When I knew we were going to D.C., the first thing I did was I picked up the phone and I called my opposing counsel, who I knew was a woman, and we hadn’t met before. And the first thing I told her was how excited I am that I’ll be entering that courtroom alongside another woman.
The fact that, like you stated, my opposing counsel was a woman when we know that women are underrepresented in what is still a homogenous bar at the Supreme Court was personal and exciting. We had a great conversation. We both talked about being mothers and you know what we were going to do with our kids when going to D.C., so that really added to the experience.
I’ve said this before, I didn’t ascend up those steps by myself. I really was carried by the brilliance of the team that we have at the department of the attorney general. Our attorney general, my solicitor general team, and the appellate attorneys who have worked so hard on this case and many other cases. I was surrounded by my colleagues and I truly felt it was such an honor.
There’s been more discussion about diversity, not only in terms of the Supreme Court justices themselves but also talking about people who have the opportunity to make these arguments before the Supreme Court. How should society think about lowering those barriers for people from underrepresented backgrounds?
It’s important to recognize that as women, as minorities, as people of color, we’re not just there filling a diversity quota. We bring so much to the table, more than just our faces and our names. I was appointed by an attorney general who understood that concept, which is the reason why, as solicitor general, I was able to make that Supreme Court argument.
We believe, and I know [state Attorney General Dana Nessel] believes, that every level of our government needs to at the very least reflect the diversity of our country itself. Our highest court of the land should reflect that as well. I welcome and celebrate the milestone of being the first Arab American Muslim woman. But I understand the difference between a broken barrier and a systemic fix.
We have to ask ourselves what’s being lost when certain people and ideas are not represented. My strength is in my diversity, but not just mine alone, it’s the diversity of my team that puts us in place to strengthen our courts and our arguments. We often talk about diversity as a problem of access for individuals, and we don’t really talk enough about diversity as a collective problem. It is a collective problem. What do we collectively lose when the Supreme Court bar is not as diverse as our nation?
We bring with us our diverse arguments, our diverse intellectual traditions, our diverse perspectives. The knowledge that I learned from an urban public university; I went to Wayne State. It is so important to me that the bar is not just the elite, when you represent the people. It’s important that those closest to the pain should be in positions representing.
Does this influence how you engage with young lawyers, particularly those from traditionally overlooked groups?
My assistant will tell you on a monthly basis we have women in particular who would come and visit me. I make an effort to reach out to them and be involved in their lives. I think that we have to do that, because at the end of the day we need each other. This concept of being in front of the Supreme Court, or being solicitor general, it is about time that this whole notion of being the first or the exception ends. And I want women, not just me, but women that will stand alongside me and after me to show my daughter, Julia, that this is not the exception, that this is the norm. And we get there by, again, making sure that this is a collective achievement, by opening the door for somebody else and lending them a hand. And we have to deliberately consciously and intentionally do that.