In a historic vote, the U.S. Senate has officially confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman justice and sixth woman ever to sit on the Supreme Court. Jackson is additionally the first former federal public defender and the only justice other than Justice Sonia Sotomayor with actual trial experience to be confirmed to the high court. Advocates say the confirmation is a historic moment of representation and hope it will help protect the rights of marginalized people, as reproductive rights, voting rights, and environmental protections hang on the votes of the Supreme Court.
“The confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson makes history today because of the progress it will bring for all of us tomorrow,” said Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson in a statement. “Judge Jackson has raised the bar in terms of qualifications for the Supreme Court … Her perspective as a public defender has long been missing from the Court and denied influence across the judiciary, as has her real-world experience addressing racial injustices in sentencing. We must remember and redouble our commitment to redefining the role of judges and prosecutors across our country—to ensure they serve the people rather than serving corrupt interests and ensure they end racial injustice rather than exacerbating it.”
The process began on Feb. 25 when President Joe Biden nominated Jackson to fill the seat of retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, fulfilling his campaign promise to nominate a Black woman to the SCOTUS.
“Black voters and activists made President Biden promise to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court, and Black voters and activists made him keep that promise,” Robinson said. “We demanded representation, not just in gender and race but in perspective and values. Black activism has proven itself the strongest force to counteract the dangerous yet carefully planned, right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court and our judiciary.”
Jackson had her first round of meetings on March 2 with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Beginning on March 21, Jackson endured four days of political theater and racist questioning during her confirmation hearing, including being questioned about anti-racist baby books by conservative legislator Ted Cruz. After a deadlocked Senate Judiciary Committee stalled 11-11 along party lines, Democrats took the vote to the full Senate. The confirmation was all but decided on Monday when Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney joined Sen. Susan Collins in crossing partisan lines and said they would vote in favor of Jackson. Their votes added to the 50 Democratic senators who had already pledged their support.
“Black women have always led our nation’s progress toward equity and social justice,” said Noreen Farrell, a civil rights attorney and executive director of Equal Rights Advocates. “Jackson also brings profound and exemplary judicial and legal experience. As a public defender working on behalf of indigent clients, that will bring an important perspective to the court.”
As Vice Chair of the Sentencing Commission, Judge Jackson argued for sensible sentencing reforms which would have the greatest impact on Black and Latinx communities, who face longer than average prison sentences than their white counterparts.
“I think Jackson’s consistency and balance will have a very profound impact on the court in years to come, even if the court’s ideological balance doesn’t change in the short term,” Farrell said. “Conservative justices will have to up their game in light of the very detailed analysis that she’ll bring to any case, whether it’s a dissent or otherwise.”
While Jackson’s appointment does not change the conservative majority with a 6-3 lead, advocates say Jackson’s presence will leave an indelible mark for years to come. Jackson will begin her lifelong appointment during the court’s 2022-23 term, which begins October 2022. Most notably, the court will hear Merrill v. Milligan, a voting rights legal suit between Alabama state and voting rights advocates that say the newly drawn congressional maps are racially gerrymandered to weaken Alabama’s Black voting power. The current Supreme Court granted a temporary injunction on a lower court’s ruling to redraw the maps to comply with the Voting Rights Act. SCOTUS is expected to hear oral arguments on this case in October 2022, with a decision issued by summer 2023.