Politics

The First Black Woman on the Supreme Court

Weeks after Biden’s nomination, the nation officially hails Jackson as the 116th justice.

By: Yasmine Abdeldayem

Reuters | President Biden and Judge Jackson rejoice in the Roosevelt Room as the confirmation unfolds on screen.

On April 7, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed to the Supreme Court, making her the first black woman in U.S. history to join the ranks of the high court.

A 53-47 vote in the Senate propelled Judge Jackson’s confirmation. 50 votes were constituted by the entirety of the Democratic caucus. 

Only three Republican senators extended their support to the judicial nominee as the vote was called: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah. 

Although Vice President Kamala Harris would have served as the tie-breaking vote in favor of Judge Jackson, officials like Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois had still hoped to see a bipartisan vote for this momentous occasion. 

The lack of Republican support comes as no surprise. Since Judge Jackson’s hearings began on March 21, the GOP has carried out a heated effort to frame her as a radical leftwing activist who sympathizes with criminals, rather than victims. 

On the third day of hearings, Senator Ted Cruz used his ten-minute opening statement to discuss children’s books on a reading list at a private school that one of Judge Jackson’s daughters attends. 

He had proceeded to ask whether she believed that “babies are racist” and, furthering his specific series of hypotheticals, if he could feasibly sue Harvard were he to “decide [he] was an Asian man.” 

Senator Josh Hawley had also led questioning regarding Judge Jackson’s rulings in child pornography cases, rooted in the concern that the sentences granted to felons in seven discussed cases were too lenient. 

This sentiment was echoed by Senators Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz—all had previously voted in favor of judges who also issued sentences below prosecutor recommendations. 

Judge Jackson also reiterated that she had sent these perpetrators to jail. Graham accused her of not believing that the crime being discussed was “a bad thing”—a barbed statement that, like many others in the public hearing, Jackson dismissed with calm grace.

Amidst the repeated attempts to derail the nomination were persistent reminders of who Judge Jackson is and the extensive qualifications that she carries. 

After graduating from Harvard University and Harvard Law School, Jackson kicked off her legal career with three clerkships—one with Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who she will replace upon his retirement this summer.

Nominated by former President Obama, she served as a district court judge for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia from 2013 to 2021.

Obama had also nominated Judge Jackson to the position of Vice Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2009. On the Commission, Jackson’s work centered on the crucial goal of maintaining a just and proportionate pattern among federal sentences. 

Since 2021, she has served as a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Judge Jackson will also be the first former federal public defender to serve on the Supreme Court. 

Cheers and a standing ovation ensued on the Democrats’ side of the Senate when Harris announced that Judge Jackson was confirmed. Many Republicans walked out among the celebration. 

Meanwhile, in the White House Roosevelt Room, Jackson witnessed the results of the vote unfold alongside President Joe Biden. 

As the affirmative answer to the question the nation has been hanging on for weeks was finally delivered on screen, Jackson wore a broad, teary smile and embraced President Biden. 

Of the 115 justices that have served on the Supreme Court, 108 have been white men. As the 116th justice, Jackson will be the first black woman on the Court, the third black justice since Clarence Thomas’ appointment in 1991, and the sixth woman overall. 

“I stand on the shoulders of so many who have come before me, including Judge Constance Baker Motley, who was the first African American woman to be appointed to the federal bench,” said Jackson, during her confirmation hearing. “And like Judge Motley, I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building, equal justice under law are a reality and not just an ideal.” 

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