In historic first, Ketanji Brown Jackson is confirmed to Supreme Court

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JACKSON NOMINATION
woman speaking at microphone while gesturing with left hand

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks in February 2020 while being honored at the University of Chicago Law School’s Parsons Dinner. (Lloyd DeGrane via Wikimedia Commons)

By a vote of 53-47, the Senate on Thursday afternoon confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the 116th justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Jackson will become the first Black woman to serve on the court, fulfilling a campaign promise by then-candidate Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign.

By the time the Senate met on Thursday, there was little suspense about the outcome of the historic vote. Three Republicans – Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Mitt Romney of Utah – had already announced that they would support Jackson, giving Jackson’s confirmation the bipartisan imprimatur that the Biden administration had badly wanted. As expected, all 50 Senate Democrats voted for the confirmation.

The slim margin reflects the current polarization surrounding the politics of judicial confirmations. The three most recent justices – Amy Coney Barrett in 2020, Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, and Neil Gorsuch in 2017 – were confirmed in similarly tight votes that broke down along mostly party lines. In contrast, some of Jackson’s other colleagues-to-be received more bipartisan support: Justice Elena Kagan, for example, was confirmed by a vote of 63-37 in 2010, while Chief Justice John Roberts was confirmed by a vote of 78-22 in 2005.

Jackson was widely regarded as the front-runner to succeed Justice Stephen Breyer even before the 83-year-old Breyer announced on Jan. 27 that he plans to step down from the court this summer. She spent seven years as a federal trial judge before being elevated in 2021 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, often dubbed the nation’s second-most important court because of the high-profile cases that it hears and because it has served as a launching pad for several other Supreme Court justices before her. Before becoming a judge, she worked for two years as a federal public defender. She will be the first justice ever to have served in that role, and the first since Justice Thurgood Marshall with significant experience representing criminal defendants.

Jackson’s submissions to the Senate Judiciary Committee revealed that the White House contacted her just three days after Breyer announced his retirement, and Biden nominated Jackson to succeed Breyer – for whom she clerked – on February 24. With 50 Democratic votes and the prospect that Vice President Kamala Harris could cast the deciding vote even if no Republican senator broke ranks, Jackson’s confirmation seemed all but assured even before her nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee began on March 21. Jackson’s sterling credentials, her endorsements from conservative lawyers and leading law-enforcement groups, and the historic nature of her nomination seemed to leave Republicans with relatively little fodder to attack her nomination.

But a few days before Jackson’s hearing began, Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri who many believe has presidential ambitions, served notice that he intended to question Jackson about what he characterized as an “alarming pattern” of issuing overly lenient sentences to defendants convicted of child pornography offenses. (Sentencing experts have said that Jackson’s sentences in fact fell within the mainstream for federal trial judges in such cases.)

Hawley and several other Republican senators who may also have presidential ambitions, including Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, continued this theme at Jackson’s hearing, seeking to portray Jackson as “soft on crime.” Cruz also pressed Jackson to weigh in on other social and academic issues of interest to conservative voters, including critical race theory, the academic field that studies racial bias in legal institutions, while Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee – invoking the controversy over transgender athletes in women’s sports – asked Jackson to define the word “woman.”

Senate Democrats defended Jackson and her record. And on the third day of the hearing, after Jackson had been grilled by Cotton, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey brought Jackson to tears with an emotional speech that praised Jackson’s “grit and grace.” Booker told Jackson, “Nobody’s going to steal that joy” from her nomination. “You have earned this spot,” Booker concluded.

After the Judiciary Committee deadlocked along party lines, Democrats used a procedural rule to move her nomination to the full Senate. And on Thursday, shortly before 2 p.m. EDT, with Vice President Kamala Harris presiding over the chamber, the vote began. Following Senate tradition, senators sat at their desks on the Senate floor, rising one by one to vote as the clerk called their names. Because the names were called in alphabetical order, Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia, cast the 50th vote for Jackson, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, provided the crucial 51st vote. After calling all 100 senators’ names, the vote stood at 53-46, with Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, having not yet voted.  

After several minutes, Paul arrived to vote against Jackson’s nomination. As a beaming Harris officially announced that Jackson had been confirmed by a vote of 53-47, Democrats stood and burst into applause, while most of their Republican counterparts left the Senate floor.

Breyer is expected to remain on the court until the justices take their summer recess in late June or early July. When Jackson does take his place, she is not expected to change the ideological balance on the court, where conservatives currently hold a 6-3 majority. But as the first Black woman to sit on the court, she will nonetheless be stepping into history.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court.



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