Last week, the White House capped off Black History Month with a historic announcement: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson would be nominated as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, making her the first Black woman nominated to the country’s highest court.
Jackson’s barrier-breaking nomination puts her in league with other trailblazing Black women, such as the late Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court and the first to serve as a federal judge. Jackson honored Motley as she accepted her nomination on Friday.
“Today, I proudly stand on Judge Motley’s shoulders, sharing not only her birthday but also her steadfast and courageous commitment to equal justice under law,” Jackson stated in her public remarks. “Judge Motley’s life and career has been a true inspiration to me as I have pursued this professional path.”
Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination hardly comes as a surprise. After graduating from Harvard Law, Jackson clerked for both Republican- and Democrat-appointed judges in addition to clerking under Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court. She has worked as a private practice lawyer and as a federal public defender, which would make her the first and only public defender appointed to the Supreme Court if she were confirmed. Jackson also served on the Independent Sentencing Commission, a federal agency tasked with addressing sentencing disparities in the U.S. justice system, and was later appointed as its vice-chair by President Barack Obama. In 2012, Obama nominated Jackson to the Federal District Court for D.C. where she served for eight and a half years before her appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals last year.
Despite her glowing resume, many anticipate that Jackson will be put through the wringer during her Supreme Court confirmation process. The extreme politics surrounding Biden’s nomination of Jackson could compel Republicans to play up their questioning to appease their base during the public confirmation hearings, according to Dr. Emmitt Riley III of DePauw University. Speaking with Prism before Jackson’s nomination was announced, Riley predicted the racialized politics around anti-racist curriculum in schools that have bubbled up across the country could bleed into the confirmation process.
“I think what we have to watch for going into confirmation hearings is the degree to which Republicans play up this identity politics,” said Riley, an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at DePauw. “I have faith that [the Senate] will confirm the nominee. However, we are in a strange period of politics, and anything can happen.”
Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard, the first female mayor of Mount Vernon and the first Black woman mayor elected in New York’s Westchester County, echoed Riley. She is confident that Jackson will be confirmed but anticipates the judge will be scrutinized for her left-leaning track record and her progressive views on politically-charged issues like abortion and the right to bear arms.
“I don’t discount the role that political theater will play,” said Patterson-Howard, who sits as second vice president of the African American Mayors Association. “People are very sensitive to their electorate back home and want to show that they pushed back.”
But the burden that comes with being a Black woman in a high-profile post will likely remain even if Jackson is confirmed to the bench.
“As a Black woman in leadership, oftentimes we’re put in a fishbowl. And sometimes, there is a lot of pressure on us to solve all the problems overnight for women and people of color,” Patterson-Howard said. “We cannot put all of our fears, our hopes, and our dreams on the back of this one justice.”
If confirmed, Jackson will begin her tenure when the court’s 2022-2023 term kicks off in October as part of the new Supreme Court cohort. Among the major cases set before the Supreme Court is Merrill v. Milligan, a legal suit between Alabama state and voting rights advocates which contends that the state’s newly-drawn congressional maps are unlawful because they were racially gerrymandered to dilute the voting power of Alabama’s Black voters. A federal court judge ordered that the maps be redrawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act but the current Supreme Court granted a temporary halt on the lower court ruling, allowing the unlawful maps to stay in effect ahead of Alabama’s May primary elections. The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on the case next term.
Sophia Lakin, deputy director of the Voting Rights Project under the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the legal challenge to Alabama’s new congressional maps, described the Supreme Court’s stay as “disappointing.”
“Black Alabamians should not have to vote under a map in 2022 that we know denies them the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice on equal terms,” Lakin wrote in an email to Prism. “But this is just a temporary step. Our challenge to Alabama’s racially discriminatory congressional map will continue as we fight to ensure Black Alabamians have fair opportunities to elect candidates of their choosing.”
Lakin hailed Jackson’s historic Supreme Court nomination as an important step forward for the country, stating it was long overdue.
“Diversity matters when it comes to representing and expanding the ways the Court thinks about fairness, equity, and justice and the persistent legacy of systemic and institutional racism in this country,” Lakin wrote.
Although Jackson’s seat on the court will not change the current conservative majority, the presence of a justice who is equity-minded on the court is important regardless. That alone could make a difference in the court’s deliberations but, as Supreme Court seats are treated as lifetime appointments, it could also have reverberations for decades to come.
Having a justice with a progressive background might even slow down unwanted consequences from the court’s ruling on substantial issues. Take the current fight over abortion rights; advocates have struggled to protect abortion rights through a number of legal challenges. In December, the Supreme Court moved to dismiss significant parts of Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson, the suit over Texas’ controversial abortion ban known as SB8. The decision essentially upheld the Texas abortion ban. But the real test will be Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case on the constitutionality of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. The court is expected to decide on the case this summer—before Jackson’s potential appointment—and advocates predict the ruling will affect the constitutionality of abortion rights in the country.
Jackson had her first round of meetings on March 2 when she met with Senate leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Confirmation hearings around her nomination will begin on March 21.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, stated he expects to have her confirmation completed before the Senate goes into recess on April 9. The senator added he is confident that a small contingent of Republicans will vote in favor of Jackson’s confirmation, even though he has not secured any Republican votes yet. Regardless, many Democrats are hoping for a swift confirmation for Jackson, who received bipartisan support in her previous appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
“We have to trust that she is going to do her job,” said Mount Vernon Mayor Patterson-Howard. “That she is going to execute the law and that she will serve as a fair voice on the bench and fight for what is right and what is just for everyone, and not just some of the community.”