PROVIDENCE — Judge Melissa A. Long on Monday became the first Black justice on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it does indeed bend toward justice.”
As she took the oath of office on the marble steps outside the State House, she said that judges paved the way for her to be there.
The biracial daughter of parents who met in the Army, Long said the schools her father attended as a boy were desegregated after the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. And the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision decriminalized her parents’ marriage, allowing them “to live and raise a family without fear of arrest,” she said.
Monday would have marked her late mother’s 77th birthday, Long said.
“She and my father served this country honorably, and their faith in America’s institutions – including its judicial system – was unshakable,” she said. “That is vitally important, because as we’ve seen very recently, not believing can be transformative, too.”
People must have faith in the country’s institutions, Long said. “We must believe that judges administer justice fairly and impartially, driven by the law and facts applicable to each case,” she said.
Long vowed to uphold her duty to enhance the public’s belief in the judicial system.
“I have just taken a solemn oath to administer justice without respect to persons, and to do equal right to the poor and to the rich,” she said. “Every day, when I arrive at the courthouse, I will recommit to taking the time to understand the stories of those whose cases come before me, and to appreciating that those stories matter.”
In December, Governor Gina M. Raimondo nominated Long, a Superior Court judge, and state Senator Erin Lynch Prata, to fill two rare vacancies on the Supreme Court. Lynch Prata was sworn in last week, and women now make up a majority of the state’s high court for the first time.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell swore in Judge Long on the south steps of the State House in an outdoor ceremony designed to protect participants from COVID-19.
“I am pinch hitting, so to speak, for Governor Gina Raimondo, who is unable to be with us this afternoon,” Suttell said. Late last week, President-elect Joe Biden nominated Raimondo to be commerce secretary.
But Raimondo wanted everyone to know how proud she is of this moment and what it means to Rhode Island, Suttell said. “She was thrilled when she nominated Judge Long to the Superior Court of Rhode Island in 2017 and could not think of anyone more talented or better suited to make history today by becoming the first person of color on the Rhode Island Supreme Court,” he said.
One of Long’s sons, Noah Long, read an opinion piece by former state Senator Harold M. Metts during the swearing in ceremony.
Metts, who for years was the state’s only Black senator, said Long’s appointment is significant “because the highest court in the state will have someone with a shared experience with a good portion of the citizens of this state.”
For too long, Metts said, people of color were expected to participate in the country’s democracy without having a say in its laws or policies.
“ ”We’ve followed its laws and fought in its wars,” he said. “We’ve lived, labored, loved, and died while being relegated to subservient status in society. We’ve been virtually ignored by the authorities and pushed into segregated slums where we were barely afforded the necessities of life.”
But now, a person of color will be on the Supreme Court, with a say in how the state’s laws are interpreted, Metts said.
“For people of color, that means so much, it cannot be overstated,” he wrote. ”She brings a world of experience and legal talent to the high court that will be a great and ongoing benefit to the judicial system of this state.”