WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the US Supreme Court, making her the first Black woman to ever serve on the nation’s highest court in its more than 200-year history.
As the 116th confirmed justice, Jackson will replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer at the end of the court’s term this summer, shoring up the court’s three-member liberal wing and fulfilling one of President Joe Biden’s early campaign promises.
Her appointment represents a dramatic step forward in diversifying a federal bench where people of color and women have been historically underrepresented. Besides becoming the first Black woman to serve as a justice, she is only the third Black person and sixth woman to join the court.
With a smiling Vice President Kamala Harris presiding over the proceedings, the Senate voted 53–47 to confirm Jackson, with Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney joining Democrats.
Jackson, 51, brings years of experience as a judge and many of the same elite credentials that have defined modern Supreme Court nominees, including two Harvard degrees and selective clerkships. She was championed by Democrats and liberal advocacy groups for her experience as a federal public defender and as a member of the US Sentencing Commission, positions that haven’t traditionally served as pathways to a federal judgeship, let alone a Supreme Court nomination.
Republicans lacked the numbers in the Senate to block Jackson’s nomination as long as Democrats and the independents who caucus with them remained united, which they did. Her confirmation became even more certain once Collins, Murkowski, and Romney announced their intention to support her.
Republicans aggressively questioned Jackson in her confirmation hearings about a number of culture war issues and accused her of being too lenient in sentencing people convicted of child sex abuse image offenses. Federal sentencing experts described Jackson’s decisions in those cases as mainstream. Throughout the hearings, she explained that she had followed guidelines and policies set by Congress in how she managed those cases.
The conservative opposition campaign to Jackson’s nomination devolved into baseless accusations that she and the senators who voted for her effectively supported child sex abuse, echoing the QAnon collective delusion that Democrats are involved in a global child sex trafficking network.
Before her nomination, Jackson spent the past year on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, a historic springboard to the high court; Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh are alumni. Jackson was confirmed to the DC Circuit last spring with the support of three Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, who fiercely opposed her nomination to the Supreme Court and voiced disappointment that Biden had not nominated US District Judge J. Michelle Childs — who is from South Carolina and was backed by Graham and Rep. James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat.
Jackson’s short tenure on the DC Circuit offered relatively few precedent-setting opinions that could be targeted during her confirmation hearings, but she was involved in several high-profile cases. Last December, she was part of a three-judge panel that blocked former president Donald Trump’s attempt to stop the Jan. 6 committee from obtaining White House records.
Much of her confirmation proceedings focused on her record as a district court judge, where her cases included a subpoena fight between Congress and a former top Trump administration official, a string of legal challenges to Trump administration policies, and the prosecution of a man who walked into a DC restaurant with loaded guns in response to the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory.
Jackson vowed to decide cases from a “neutral posture” and to base her decisions on the facts and the law, joining other recent Supreme Court nominees in staying away from articulating any personal opinions about some of the most significant and politically divisive issues to come before the court, such as abortion.
In her first public appearance as Biden’s nominee and in her testimony before the Senate, Jackson spoke about the significance of her appointment, both in terms of the judicial system’s progress and within her own family. She paid tribute to the late Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge, and to her parents, describing how they had faced racial segregation and that her “path was clearer” because of their support and the passage of civil rights laws the decade before she was born.
She remained calm and largely unemotional throughout hours of questioning, at times pushing back when Republicans attempted to repeatedly ask her questions that she’d already answered about her sentencing record in cases that involved child sex abuse images.
Near the end of the proceedings, she cried as Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, delivered a passionate speech about the historic weight of her nomination.
“You’re a person that is so much more than your race and gender. You’re a Christian, you’re a mom, you’re an intellect, you love books. But for me, I’m sorry, it’s hard for me not to look at you and not see my mom, not to see my cousins, one of them who had to come here and sit behind you. She had to have your back. I see my ancestors and yours,” Booker said. “Nobody’s going to steal the joy of that woman in the street, or the calls that I’m getting, or the texts. Nobody’s going to steal that joy. You have earned this spot. You are worthy. You are a great American.”
Jackson won’t formally join the court until after the justices recess for the summer, which means she won’t be involved in what are expected to be blockbuster decisions in the coming months about the future of abortion rights and whether the Second Amendment extends to carrying firearms in public.
Although Jackson won't immediately start working on the court, her confirmation opens up another seat for Biden to fill on the powerful DC Circuit.