U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday nominated federal appeals court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, making her the first Black woman selected to serve on a court that once declared her race unworthy of citizenship and endorsed segregation.
Introducing Jackson, Biden called her a “proven consensus builder” who has “a pragmatic understanding that the law must work for the American people.”
“She strives to be fair, to get it right, to do justice,” the president added.
In Jackson, Biden delivers on a campaign promise to make the historic appointment and to further diversify a court that was made up entirely of white men for almost two centuries. He chose an attorney who would be the high court’s first former public defender, though she also possesses the elite legal background of other justices.
Jackson would be the current court’s second Black justice – Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative, is the other – and just the third in history. She would replace liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, 83, who is retiring at the end of the term this summer, so she won’t change the court’s 6-3 conservative majority.
Jackson would join the court as it weighs cutbacks to abortion rights and will be considering ending affirmative action in college admissions and restricting voting rights efforts to increase minority representation.
She would be only the sixth woman to serve on the court, but she would join three others already there, including the first Latina, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
In brief remarks, Jackson thanked Biden, saying she was “humbled by the extraordinary honour of this nomination.” She highlighted her family’s first-hand experience with the entirety of the legal system, as judges and lawyers, an incarcerated member and police officers.
Standing alongside Biden at the White House, she spoke of the historic nature of her nomination, noting she shared a birthday with Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to be confirmed to the federal bench.
“If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed as the next associate justice of the Supreme Court United States, I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded, will inspire future generations of Americans,” Jackson said.
Jackson, 51, once worked as one of Breyer’s law clerks early in her legal career. She attended Harvard as an undergraduate and for law school, and served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the agency that develops federal sentencing policy, before becoming a federal judge in 2013.
Her nomination is subject to confirmation by the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority by a razor-thin 50-50 margin with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker. Party leaders have promised swift but deliberate consideration of the president’s nominee.
The news comes two years to the day after Biden, then struggling to capture the Democratic presidential nomination, pledged in a South Carolina debate to nominate a Black woman if presented with a vacancy.
“Everyone should be represented,” Biden said then.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said in a statement that the panel will “begin immediately” to move forward on consideration of an “extraordinary nominee.” Senators have set a tentative goal of confirmation by April 8, when they leave for a two-week spring recess. Hearings could start as soon as mid-March.
That timeline could be complicated by a number of things, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the extended absence of Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, who suffered a stroke last month and is out for several weeks. Democrats would need Lujan’s vote to confirm Biden’s pick if no Republicans support her.
Once the nomination is sent to the Senate, it is up to the Senate Judiciary Committee to vet the nominee and hold confirmation hearings. After the committee approves a nomination, it goes to the Senate floor for a final vote.
Biden and Senate Democrats are hoping for a bipartisan vote on the nomination, but it’s unclear if they will be able to win over any GOP senators after bitterly partisan confirmation battles under President Donald Trump. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of three Republicans who voted to confirm Jackson to the appeals court last year, had pushed Biden to nominate a different candidate from his home state, Judge J. Michelle Childs, who also was favoured by home-state Rep. James Clyburn, a Biden ally.
Graham said earlier this month that his vote would be “very problematic” if it were anyone else, and he expressed disappointment in a tweet Friday that Biden had not nominated his preferred choice. Previewing a likely Republican attack line, he and several others on the right said Biden was going with the choice of the “radical left.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he looked forward to meeting with Jackson and “studying her record, legal views and judicial philosophy.” But he noted he had voted against her a year ago.
Biden has said he was interested in selecting a nominee in the mold of Breyer who could be a persuasive force with fellow justices. Although Breyer’s votes tended to put him to the left of center on an increasingly conservative court, he frequently saw the gray in situations that colleagues were more likely to find black or white.
“Justice Breyer – the members of the Senate will decide if I fill your seat,” Jackson said, praising the retiring justice’s “civility, grace, pragmatism and generosity of spirit.”
“But please know that I could never fill your shoes,” she said.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “With her exceptional qualifications and record of evenhandedness, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be a justice who will uphold the Constitution and protect the rights of all Americans, including the voiceless and vulnerable,. The historic nomination of Judge Jackson is an important step toward ensuring the Supreme Court reflects the nation as a whole.”
As part of his search process, Biden, a longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also interviewed Childs and California Supreme Court Judge Leondra Kruger, according to a person familiar with the matter. He also consulted with a wide range of legal experts and lawmakers in both parties and delved deeply into the finalists’ legal writings.
Jackson serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a position that Biden elevated her to last year from her previous job as a federal trial court judge. Three current justices – Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts, the chief justice – previously served on the same appeals court.
Jackson was confirmed to that post on a 53-44 Senate vote, winning the backing of three Republicans: Graham, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.
In one of Jackson’s most high-profile decisions, as a trial court judge she ordered former White House Counsel Don McGahn to appear before Congress. That was a setback to Trump’s efforts to keep his top aides from testifying. The case was appealed, and a deal was ultimately reached for McGahn’s testimony.
As an appeals court judge, she was part of a three-judge panel that ruled in December against Trump’s effort to shield documents from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Miami. She has said that her parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, chose her name to express their pride in her family’s African ancestry. They asked an aunt who was in the Peace Corps in Africa at the time to send a list of African girls’ names and they picked Ketanji Onyika, which they were told meant “lovely one.”
Jackson traces her interest in the law to when she was in preschool and her father was in law school and they would sit together at the dining room table, she with colouring books and he with law books. Her father became an attorney for the county school board and her mother was a high school principal. A brother, nine years younger, served in the Army, including in Iraq, and is now a lawyer, too.
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