Ketanji Brown-Jackson Confirmed as First Black Female U.S. Supreme Court Justice
On April 7, the United States Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States. According to NBC News, Judge Jackson will be the first Black woman and first public defender to be nominated and confirmed for a seat on the country’s highest court. She will take office in October 2022 following Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement at the end of the current Supreme Court term.
Judge Jackson was nominated by President Joe Biden, fulfilling his campaign promise to nominate the first Black woman to the Court, and was confirmed with narrow bipartisan support in the Senate. The U.S. Senate, composed of an even split of Democratic and Republican senators, concluded the confirmation hearing with a vote of 53-47. NBC News continues that all 50 Democratic senators, joined by three Republican senators – Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and Utah’s Mitt Romney – voted in favor of Judge Jackson.
Jackson’s confirmation hearing saw senators interrogate her past judicial rulings and explore how her perspective might impact the Supreme Court. Just as other nominees before her, Judge Jackson was careful in crafting responses regarding her position on issues likely to appear before the Court in coming years. According to NPR, she never explicitly outlined her judicial philosophy, a judge’s set of beliefs that guide his or her judicial decisions, but explained in detail her “methodology” in deciding cases.
Although Judge Jackson’s methodology is not entirely rooted in originalism or living constitutionalism, the two most common judicial philosophies, she seems to lean more towards originalism, unlike many of her liberal predecessors. Originalism is the practice of interpreting the Constitution as it was written with the original Founding Fathers’ intentions, whereas living constitutionalism treats the Constitution as a living document whose interpretation evolves as society changes.
Judge Jackson, although never explicitly calling herself an originalist, explained during her hearing that she would interpret the Constitution in the way the Founders intended. However, her three-step methodology for Constitutional interpretation suggests she has a more middle-ground philosophy. As Vox explains, Jackson’s judicial methodology centers around the ideas of eliminating “preconceived notions,” weighing the circumstances of a case, then applying legal statutes.
The confirmation hearing was also filled with interrogations of Judge Jackson’s record in her previous judicial positions. Vox continues that, Jackson’s record on sentencing was heavily discussed by Republican Senators. In a tweet, Republican Senator Josh Hawley accused Judge Jackson of being too lenient in sentencing child pornography offenders, falsely saying that she had been advocating for such offenders since law school. Several other Republican Senators followed this line of questioning, including Ted Cruz, Marsha Blackburn, and Tom Cotton. Judge Jackson defended her decisions by explaining a judge’s obligation under Congressional statute to balance sentencing guidelines with the circumstances of each case.
Republican Senators brought up several other critiques of her actions. Senator Lindsey Graham challenged her decision to provide legal counsel to Guantanamo Bay detainees, suggesting that defending these detainees posed a threat to national security. Vox additionally reports that Senator Ted Cruz objected to Judge Jackson’s affiliation with Georgetown Day School based on its teaching of books he disagreed with. Amongst the contested books was Antiracist Baby, a children’s book about antiracism written by American professor and anti-racist activist Ibram X. Kendi. According to Forbes, sales of books mentioned in Cruz’s questioning jumped dramatically in the week following the hearing, such as Antiracist Baby, which saw a 5,150 percent increase in sales. Judge Jackson avoided commenting on the books themselves, maintaining that her role on the Board of Trustees did not involve creating curriculum.
Despite the tension in her confirmation hearing, soon-to-be-Justice Jackson’s qualifications for the position are clear. According to a profile by the White House, Judge Jackson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and Harvard Law School, where she was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. She clerked under Justice Breyer before becoming a federal public defender in 2005. Jackson was later nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed with bipartisan support to serve as Vice-Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and then as a U.S. District Court judge for the District of Columbia. Most recently Judge Jackson was nominated by President Biden and confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
However contentious her nomination and confirmation process were, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be the next Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. As the first Black woman and public defender to join the Court, Judge Jackson’s appointment is certainly historic, but what impact she will have on American politics and the justice system remains to be seen.