Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks at the 2020 Parsons Dinner, which honors a different distinguished African-American federal jurist each year. Judge jacson Brown was an honoree at the Third Annual Judge James B. Parsons Legacy Dinner. Photo credit: Lloyd DeGrane on Wikimedia commons

President Biden announces Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as first Black woman U.S Supreme Court nominee

8 mins read

One of the few high points in the Biden-Harris Administration, honoring the campaign promise is perfect timing. 

On February 25, President Joseph Biden revealed federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as his highly anticipated pick for the lifelong U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) seat. The decision has dual repercussions as Brown Jackson is also now the first African American woman SCOTUS nominee. 

“I’ve sought a candidate with the strongest credentials, record, character, and dedication to the rule of law. That’s why I am excited to nominate one of the nation’s brightest legal minds,” announced President Biden during the last days of Black History Month. Whether the move is progressive or performative, it is duly noted that Administration pushed a nomination long overdue “What’s remarkable is what she brings to the bench . . . she’s a history maker.”

Judge Brown Jackson is a Harvard undergraduate and class of 1996 law school alumnus, she served as a federal public defense attorney from 2005 until 2007. Notably, she was appointed as a special counsel to, and eventual vice chair of, the U.S Sentencing Commission from February 2010 to December 2014 under the Obama Administration. In 2013, President Obama selected Judge Brown Jackson as U.S District Court Judge for the District of Columbia; a position she held until June of last year. 

For 51-year-old Brown Jackson, her confirmation could mean becoming the first African American woman, and the sixth female justice, on the bench’s near 233-year history. Adding a perceived unique, minority vantage that many Black woman supporters have cited as imperative for contextualizing legal acts and possibly, future decisions. 

While Judge Brown Jackson may not be able to curb the current conservative-majority vote, for Democrats, her age signifies the possibility of decades of service and liberal leanings on some of the country’s most important cases. 

The Yeas

Scores of approvals have reverberated with President Biden’s announcement. “Today is an important, historic day for all Americans, but especially for every little Black girl who, for the first time, will soon see herself represented in the highest court of the land,” wrote Attorney General Letitia James. 

“Judge Jackson has already inspired young Black women like my daughters to set their sights higher, and her confirmation will help them believe they can be anything they want to be,” messaged former POTUS, Barack Obama, who nominated the first Latino SCOTUS, Justice Sonia Maria Sotomayor, in 2009.

The major difference between former President Obama, and today’s President Biden is the stakes are much higher. Facing a war, inflation and a shaky economy, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is being dismantled across the U.S. in Republican-majority states.

“We are living through an unprecedented attack on voting rights [among other policy issues], or at least in my lifetime. And so having the sort of demographic, the experiential, the ideological diversity that is reflected in our country be reflected on the court is super important,” explained voting rights expert, Nse Ufot.

Moreover, Biden has cited how Judge Brown Jackson has been confirmed by the Senate three times in her legal career, garnering bipartisan support in each instance. Seemingly, Biden is banking on an easy sell to counterparts on the other side of the aisle.

| Watch: Biden acknowledges Black voters as key to his win

“Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, for her integrity, it is unequivocal,” asserted Republican Paul Ryan of Judge Brown Jackson at her 2012 U.S. District Court judge nomination hearing. “She’s an amazing person, and I favorably recommend her consideration.” The former House Speaker is distantly related to Brown Jackson via marriage on his wife’s side of the family. 

No strangers to the law, her immediate family has also helped enforce it. The Washington D.C. born, Miami raised Brown Jackson is the daughter of Johnny and Ellery Brown, who grew up in Jim Crow-era South Florida. Mr. Brown was a public high school teacher turned lawyer who went on to become the Miami-Dade County School Board’s chief attorney. Mrs. Brown served as New World School of the Arts principal.

In addition, the former federal public defender’s brother and two uncles are in law enforcement. Her younger sibling is an Army veteran and Baltimore police officer while one of her uncles, Calvin Ross, served as Miami’s police chief. 

Unfortunately, she has had family face the other side of the law, too. While in college, another of Jackson’s uncles was sentenced to life for a nonviolent cocaine offense. With the help of her advocacy, a law firm took the case pro bono years later. Eventually, President Barack Obama commuted his sentence. 

In 2021, Judge Brown Jackson succeeded now-U.S attorney general Merrick Garland to the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit as a federal judge by a 53-44 Senate vote. Throughout her impeccable legal career, Judge Brown Jackson additionally served three federal clerkships, including one for Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, whom she may be replacing this year.

President Joe Biden talks on the phone with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Wednesday, November 3, 2021, in the Oval Office. Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

[Campaign] promises, promises

To that end, political strategists point out that Judge Brown Jackson would be replacing an already liberal, Democrat justice. Hence, not a practical trade in a court that sways conservative 6 to 3. In late January, Associate Justice Breyer announced his summer 2022 retirement. The 83-year-old president Bill Clinton nominee and fellow Harvard law alumnus has served on the Court since 1994.

At a press conference alongside Justice Breyer, Biden expressed his immediate intention of replacing him with a qualified Black woman per his 2020-era presidential campaign promises. In addition to Judge Brown Jackson, Biden’s shortlist included heavy hitters like California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger and South Carolina Judge J. Michelle Childs.  

“I’ve made no decision except one [in finding a replacement Supreme Court Justice]: The person I will nominate will be someone with extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity. And that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court. It’s long overdue in my view,” declared Biden.

| Watch: Weak economy, plus unpromising voting rights bill being passed

In Biden’s call to Judge Brown Jackson informing her of the nomination, he reaffirmed her brilliance as an agent for and expert of law. As well, he expressed his want for the SCOTUS to reflect what the country looks like in a White House press statement announcing Brown Jackson as his choice. 

To those who think her nomination would be a diversity pick on the basis of race or gender, Judge Brown Jackson disagrees with pushing any particular agenda. “I don’t think race plays a role in the kind of judge that I have been and that I would be,” expressed Brown during the 2021 Judiciary Committee nomination hearing for her appeals court position. 

“I’m looking at the arguments, the facts, and the law…race would be the kind of thing that would be inappropriate to inject in my evaluation of a case.”

However, political science professor, Sherice J. Nelson opined before the announcement that some Congressional Black Caucus members hoped for a pick who has worked more so in activist spaces. “[Representative] Jim Clyburn has been one of the biggest voices on this saying, ‘Yes we want a Black woman, but we don’t want a Black woman from the colonial eight, or the Ivy leagues, as we call it today,” Dr. Nelson told Ark Republic.

The Nays

Nevertheless, not everyone is happy with the move. The Republican National Committee (RNC) claims the 2019 Trump critic is a radical, left-wing activist being used to enforce the president’s self-interests and “disastrous agenda.” They claimed the president is prioritizing extreme leftist interests ahead of American liberties and rights for all. That said, the body’s Republicans promise a respectful, albeit thorough, review of the SCOTUS’s first Black woman nominee. 

“I voted against confirming Judge Jackson to her current position less than a year ago,” McConnell revealed of Brown Jackson in a recent statement. “Judge Jackson was the favored choice of far-left dark-money groups that have spent years attacking the legitimacy and structure of the Court itself.”

He furthered. “With that said, I look forward to carefully reviewing Judge Jackson’s nomination during the vigorous and thorough Senate process that the American people deserve.”

Moreover, although it can be seen as a historic ploy, skeptics found Biden’s promise of a Black woman SCOTUS nominee to be an incredibly specific performative gesture considering his recent popularity decline. Amidst mask mandates and foreign relations snafus like the Afghanistan evacuation and now the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the current POTUS has an approval rate of 39 percent at the moment; down from 41 percent in December 2021 according to a PBS NewsHour poll

Therefore, a majority of Americans believe his first year was a failure citing a lack of campaign promise fulfillment and missteps on critical policy, especially regarding COVID-19 mismanagement that led to the inflation being seen now. 

Yet, Black women are some of his, and the Democratic party’s, largest supporters. With the help of Black women like Stacy Abrams and LaTosha Brown fighting voter suppression and campaigning on his behalf, over 90 percent of them voted for Biden in the last presidential election. So, he may be keeping true to his most staunch base as midterms loom around the corner. 

“Black women are often called the backbone of the Democratic Party–the type of reliable voters that can make or break a candidate,” expressed NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday host Juana Summers. “So it’s little surprise that earlier this week, the president reiterated a key promise [to fulfill the SCOTUS seat with a Blak woman] that he made on the campaign trail.” 

What’s next? 

Brown Jackson must still undergo Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. At this moment, the legislative faction is nearly balanced in terms of partisanship. During the judicial nomination and confirmation process, a candidate’s personal and professional life is scrutinized by the Senate as well as the media and public alike. To affirm a choice, a majority vote among present Senators must occur. 

Since voting decisions usually fall along bipartisan lines, Democrats have a solid chance of getting Brown Jackson in because Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote as Senate head. 

As well, the party is taking heed from Republicans and the 2020 confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. In a bit more than five weeks, the 45th POTUS’s nominee was confirmed after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and right before his loss in the 2020 presidential election. 

Although Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said Jackson’s confirmation process will start immediately, it may likely take longer than five weeks– hoping to start when Congress returns this week and likely to conclude by mid April. 

Moreover, Brown Jackson’s chances look favorable as nominees have a pretty good track record of being confirmed; a strategic move by the ruling party at the time. Currently, the Democrats maintain the majority vote in the Senate, but both President Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris hope for a bipartisan approval. There are exceptions though. 

One of which is when Obama chose Garland to replace the deceased ultra-conservative former Justice Anton Scalia in 2016. However, the now-86th Attorney General was stalled by a Mitch McConnell-led Senate until the Trump presidency began. There, he was replaced by the latter’s choice, Neil Gorsuch, who made the cut in 2017. Before then, Ronald Regan’s choice in Robert Bork was outright rejected in July 1987, instead favoring moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy the next year.

Today, the biggest threat to Brown Jackson’s nomination is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Sinema (D-AZ), both of whom have voted against or stalled critical legislation pushed by the Biden Administration. “Just as I have done with previous Supreme Court nominees, I will evaluate Judge Jackson’s record, legal qualifications and judicial philosophy to serve on the highest court in the land. I look forward to meeting with Judge Jackson before determining whether to provide my consent,” remarked Sen. Manchin. In a similar vein, Sen. Sinema echoed almost on-key sentiments.

As always, time and a strategic U.S Senate vote will determine if change will be lifelong, or if history will again repeat itself.  Old, white, ivy league educated–wash, rinse, repeat.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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