The 51-year-old U.S. appeals court judge is poised to make history as the first Black woman on the nation's highest court.
President Joe Biden announced Friday that he is nominating Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, handing progressives a win and moving forward with his promise to put the first Black woman onto the nation’s highest court.
In remarks at the White House, Biden said Jackson is not only incredibly qualified but will bring badly needed diversity to the Supreme Court.
“For too long, our government, our courts, haven’t looked like America,” said the president, with Jackson standing by his side, along with Vice President Kamala Harris. “I believe it’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation, with a nominee of extraordinary qualifications. And that we inspire all young people to believe that they can one day serve their country at the highest level.”
Jackson, 51, was considered the front-runner to replace Justice Stephen Breyer, who announced in January that he plans to retire this summer.
Jackson has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit since June. She previously served as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for eight years. She is a former public defender and was vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. She also clerked for Breyer during the 1999-2000 Supreme Court term.
Presidents regularly pluck Supreme Court nominees from the D.C. Circuit. Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh all served on this court, as did the late Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia.
During her remarks at the White House, Jackson thanked Biden and said her religious faith has led her to this point.
“I thank God for delivering me to this point in my professional journey,” Jackson said. “My life has been blessed beyond measure, and I do know that one can only come this far by faith.”
She talked about law enforcement running in her family, including two uncles who served decades as police officers, and said her family’s support has been the foundation of her successes. She also had special praise for Breyer.
“Justice Breyer, in particular, not only gave me the greatest job that any young lawyer could ever hope to have, but he also exemplified every day in every way that a Supreme Court justice can perform at the highest level of skill and integrity while also being guided by civility, grace, pragmatism and generosity of spirit,” Jackson said. “Justice Breyer, the members of the Senate will decide if I fill your seat, but please know that I could never fill your shoes.”
Progressive judicial advocacy groups and dozens of organizations representing public defenders had been urging Biden to pick Jackson. They argued it was long past time for a former public defender to have a seat on the court.
“Too often, past presidents have communicated through their judicial nominations that in order to be appointed to a prestigious federal judgeship, a lawyer should spend their career working at a corporate law firm or as a prosecutor,” reads a letter to Biden last week from the Black Public Defender Association, the National Association for Public Defense, The Legal Aid Society and others. “By nominating a former public defender to the highest court in the country, you would make clear that you believe defending the rights of people who cannot afford a lawyer is just as valuable as representing the wealthiest Americans.”
Jackson has already shown that she can pick up at least some GOP support in the Senate. When she was confirmed to her current judgeship last year, three Republicans joined Democrats in voting to confirm her: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). When the Senate confirmed Jackson to her previous seat on the U.S. district court in 2013, it was by a unanimous vote.
“I’m not looking to make an ideological choice,” Biden recently told NBC’s Lester Holt regarding his selection process. “I’m looking for someone to replace Judge Breyer with the same kind of capacity that Judge Breyer had, with an open mind, who understands the Constitution and interprets it in a way that is consistent with the mainstream interpretation of the Constitution.”
Barring extraordinary circumstances, there is no reason to believe Jackson will not be confirmed. Biden already has the votes in his own party to confirm her. The Senate is currently tied along party lines, 50-50, and Democrats are unlikely to oppose the historic Supreme Court nomination of a Black woman by their party’s leader. In the event of a tie, Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the decisive vote.
One Democrat, Sen. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), is currently out recovering from a stroke, but he is expected to return to work well before a vote on Jackson would take place.
Jackson’s confirmation wouldn’t change the ideological bent of the Supreme Court. It is currently tilted 6-3 in favor of conservatives, and she would replace Breyer, one of those three Democrat-appointed justices. Her confirmation would simply preserve the status quo of Democrats’ minority representation on the court.
It’s possible that former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will be in the audience for Jackson’s Senate confirmation hearing. They are family, after all: The judge’s husband, Patrick Johnson, is the twin brother of Ryan’s brother-in-law William Jackson.
Ryan even testified on Jackson’s behalf in her 2012 confirmation hearing, calling her “clearly qualified” and “an amazing person.”
“Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, for her integrity, it is unequivocal,” the Wisconsin Republican said at the time. “I favorably recommend your consideration.”
It now falls to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to schedule Jackson’s confirmation hearing.