WASHINGTON — Ketanji Brown Jackson will make history by becoming the first Black woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, after Democratic and Republican senators voted Thursday to confirm her to the lifetime appointment.
The 53-47 vote comes just six weeks after President Joe Biden announced his nomination of Jackson from the White House, fulfilling a promise he first made on the campaign trail.
“For too long, our government, our courts haven’t looked like America,” Biden said at the time. “I believe it’s time that we have a Court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation with a nominee of qualifications, and that will inspire all young people to believe that they can one day serve their country at the highest level.”
The momentous nature of Jackson’s confirmation was visible throughout the Senate chamber. Senators stayed at their desks on the floor for much of the vote and dozens of U.S. House members, including the Congressional Black Caucus, gathered to watch.
Vice President Kamala Harris presided over the Senate vote even though she wasn’t needed to break a tie, since Jackson won over the support of three Republicans: Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Utah’s Mitt Romney.
After Harris called the vote, the Senate chamber erupted into a standing ovation. While most of the Republican senators filed out of the Senate, Democratic lawmakers cheered as staff packing the benches around the Senate floor and most of the seats in the gallery clapped.
Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock said before the vote that “Ketanji Brown Jackson’s improbable journey to the nation’s highest court is a reflection of our own journey through fits and starts toward the nation’s highest ideals.”
“She embodies the arc of our history,” Warnock continued. “She is America at its best. That I believe in my heart after meeting with her in my office, talking to folks who I trust who know her and hearing her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
Iowa GOP Sen. Charles Grassley said he would vote against Jackson, in part, because of her “lenient approach to criminal law and sentencing” and “judicial activism.”
“Her record clearly shows she does not believe in or act within the limited and proper role of a judge, so I will vote against her confirmation,” said Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which split 11-11 on her nomination.
The three Republicans who backed Jackson on the floor said she was well qualified to become an associate justice, though Collins and Murkowski added their support for her was also meant to reject how partisan the Supreme Court confirmation process has become.
“In my view, the role the Constitution clearly assigns to the Senate is to examine the experience, qualifications, and integrity of the nominee,” Collins said in a statement. “It is not to assess whether a nominee reflects the ideology of an individual Senator or would rule exactly as an individual Senator would want.”
Jackson will be sworn in later this year to fill Associate Justice Stephen Breyer’s seat after he retires this summer. She will not change the 6-3 conservative tilt of the court.
Hawley and Blackburn questioning
The Thursday vote followed a particularly grueling confirmation process for Jackson in the Judiciary Committee.
Numerous Republican senators, including Missouri’s Josh Hawley and Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn, grilled Jackson during her first and second days of questioning during the four-day confirmation hearing.
Republicans brought up numerous concerns with Jackson, including her time as a federal public defender and how she sentenced some of the cases that came before her when she was a U.S. district court judge.
Hawley spent nearly all of his time questioning Jackson on seven cases in which she sentenced people convicted of possession of child pornography, alleging that she should have required more prison time.
Blackburn also focused on those cases, but asked additional questions about how Jackson would define a woman and abortion.
Democrats rebuked some of the Republican questioning, saying data proved Jackson’s sentencing in child pornography cases was in line with the vast majority of other judges and that trying to imply she was “soft on crime” was political.
“The overwhelming majority of Senators on both sides I thought were asking appropriate questions and positive in their approach and respectful of the nominee before us,” Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said during the second day of questioning. “But for many senators, yesterday was an opportunity to showcase talking points for the November election.”
From Miami to the high court
Jackson’s path to the U.S. Supreme Court has been decades in the making.
Jackson, who was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Miami, testified at her confirmation hearing that one of her earliest memories was watching her father study law.
“My very earliest memories are of watching my father study. He had his stack of law books on the kitchen table while I sat across from him with my stack of coloring books,”
Jackson said last month on the first day of her confirmation hearing.
Jackson went on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1992 and Harvard Law School cum laude in 1996.
She later clerked for the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, the United States Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit and for Breyer.
Jackson worked in private practice before joining the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2003. She became a federal public defender in 2005 before being confirmed as a U.S. district court judge in 2007.
The U.S. Senate voted on Jackson just last year, confirming her 53-44 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham joined Collins and Murkowski in backing her for that role.
Jackson received dozens of endorsements for her nomination to the Supreme Court, including from the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the National Education Association.
The American Bar Association rated Jackson’s as “highly qualified.”
Wrapping up the Senate floor debate on Thursday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, said Jackson becoming an associate justice would take a “bold and important step on the well trodden path to fulfilling our country’s founding promise.”
“This is a great moment for Judge Jackson, but it is even a greater moment for America as we rise to a more perfect union,” Schumer said.