In light of the fact that there was so little to object in professional terms to the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson – who on Thursday was confirmed as the first Black woman who will sit on the United States Supreme Court – Republican senators instead spent the lengthy confirmation hearings asking her to do things like rate her religious feelings from one to 10, define a “woman” or clarify whether babies are born racist. They also portrayed her as too soft on crime and particularly on child pornography offenders. As for her judicial philosophy, it was described as so dangerous and so heavily influenced by far-left money groups that this would explain why she would rather not disclose anything about it.
Jackson, 51, whose parents are middle-class teachers who attended segregated schools as children, patiently put up with the barrage of hostile questions and rude interruptions, and showed the kind of rhetorical ability that made her a champion of her debate team at the public high school she attended in Miami. That same self-control helped her make inroads in places like Harvard, where she fought to have a student take down a Confederate flag from a dorm window and graduated with honors despite a counselor’s advice not to “aim that high.”
On Thursday, Jackson reached the highest peak of her profession when the Senate confirmed her as the first Black woman who will have one of the nine seats at the Supreme Court (in its entire 232-year history, only eight out of a total of 116 judges have not been white men.) Also for the first time, four women will be sitting on the court.
But the confirmation is historical for other reasons as well, says Paul M. Collins, a professor of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of three books about the Supreme Court as a public policy battleground. “Her arrival will diversify the court: she is the first judge with a past as a public defender and as a district court judge, like Sonia Sotomayor [nominated in 2009 by Barack Obama.]” And Collins sees another advantage: her experience as vice-president of the Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that seeks to unify the criteria of the federal courts. She also sat on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she handled a case that put her at odds with former president Donald Trump (and handed down a decision that read “Presidents are not kings.”)
An analysis of her 50-plus decisions suggests that Jackson is a progressive judge, although at the confirmation hearings she defined her philosophy with two words: “Neutrality and independence.” She said that she comes to each case without any preconceived notions, something that she learned from her days as a court-appointed attorney when she had no choice about her clients, and once defended a Guantánamo prisoner.
There are few things that have a greater influence on Americans’ lives than Supreme Court decisions. Right now, for instance, a decision is expected that could end half a century of consensus on abortion rights. Replacing the progressive Justice Stephen G. Breyer when he retires this summer with a slightly more progressive judge will not change the fundamental makeup of the Supreme Court, which for the first time in 80 years has a supermajority of six conservative judges compared with three progressive ones. But at least it will make this body look a little more like the society that it represents.