WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate voted to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court Thursday, securing her place in history as the first Black woman justice to serve on the highest court in the nation.
All 50 Senate Democrats as well as three Republican senators backed Jackson’s confirmation as the 116th Supreme Court justice, marking a rare moment of bipartisanship after GOP lawmakers spent Jackson’s confirmation hearings accusing the soon-to-be justice of being a liberal judicial activist with a soft spot for criminals.
Republican Senators Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins voted to confirm Jackson, all citing her résumé qualifications as reason for their support despite widespread opposition from their caucus to her confirmation.
Jackson, at 51, is poised to be the second-youngest justice on the court. She spent her early law career working as an attorney in private practice, a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and later a federal public defender.
Experience as a public defender rarely leads to a lawyer’s ascension to the federal bench, much less the Supreme Court, which has never had a justice with that background. Thurgood Marshall, who retired in 1991, was the last justice on the court with experience representing indigent defendants.
Jackson also spent eight years as a federal district judge before she secured a highly coveted post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
“Judge Jackson will go down in history as an American giant upon whose shoulders others will stand tall and our democracy will be better off for,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said on the Senate floor Thursday.
While her ascension will not tip the ideological balance of the 6-3 conservative court, it nevertheless marks a historic moment for an institution that has been dominated by white men for much of its history. The confirmation of Jackson also fulfills a longstanding campaign promise by President Joe Biden to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court.
When Jackson takes her seat on the bench later this summer, four of the nine justices will be women, the most women to ever serve on the court at one time in its more than 230-year history. She will be the third Black justice on the Supreme Court.
Standing in the Senate chamber Thursday, Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke of the Supreme Court’s own history, its creation at a time when women did not have the right to vote and when millions of Black people were enslaved and denied human rights.
“Our struggle to enfranchise and empower women did not end with the 19th amendment 102 years ago, it continues to this day as well, as we strive to give our daughters the same opportunities we give our sons. This confirmation of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court honors the history that has come before it. It honors the struggles of the past, of the men and women who waged them. This confirmation draws America one step closer, one step, to healing our nation. One step closer to a more perfect union,” Durbin said.
“We’re beginning to write another chapter in our nation’s quest for equal justice under the law, and that chapter begins with three letters: K.B.J.,” Durbin added.
Jackson’s ties to the Supreme Court go all the way back to the start of her career when, after graduating Harvard Law School, she clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer, the very jurist Jackson is set to replace after he retires at the end of this term.
Breyer is known for consensus building on the court and his assertion that the court is apolitical, even in recent years as judicial nominations have become increasingly partisan and public questions about the court’s legitimacy and distance from politics have increased.
Jackson’s ascension to the Supreme Court will come as the high court takes up some of the most salient issues in American politics including voting rights and the use of race as a factor in college admissions. Jackson said she will recuse herself from the college admissions case, which involves claims that Harvard, her alma mater where she also served as an alumni on one of its boards, discriminates against Asian Americans during the admissions process.
The Supreme Court case that challenges affirmative action in college admissions includes complaints involving both Harvard and the University of North Carolina. This opens the possibility that the court will break the cases into two so Jackson could sit on the bench for the UNC case.
During her confirmation hearings last month, GOP lawmakers accused Jackson of handing down overly lenient sentences in cases involving child pornography when she was a federal trial judge in Washington. Jackson rejected these assertions, explaining that, in the cases where she deviated from federal sentencing guidelines, her decisions had taken into account suggestions from the probation office and factors specific to those cases. Analysis of her sentencing record in these cases shows she was consistent with decisions made by other federal judges.
“What I regret is that in a hearing about my qualifications to be a justice on the Supreme Court, we have spent a lot of time focusing on this small subset of my sentences,” Jackson said when Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri pressed her during her confirmation hearings about decisions she made in a handful of child pornography cases.
While Republicans have accused Jackson of judicial activism, the idea that judges rule in cases based on the outcome they want not the law itself, the judicial methodology Jackson emphatically preached in her hearings drew parallels to that of Chief Justice John Roberts, a Bush appointee who is known for his assertion that the job of a justice is to “call balls and strikes.”
“I am acutely aware that, as a judge in our system, I have limited power, and I am trying in every case to stay in my lane,” Jackson told the Senate last month.
Jackson said “there is not a label” for her judicial philosophy, but she rejected the idea of a living constitution and said it’s important to take into account the text of a law “at the time of the founding and what the meaning was.”
She spoke during her hearings of the foundation laid out for her by her parents who grew up during segregation, their teaching her about the civil rights movement and inspiring her to seek out a career in law.
“I stand on the shoulders of so many who have come before me, including Judge Constance Baker Motley, who was the first African American woman to be appointed to the federal bench and with whom I share a birthday,” Jackson said during the first day of her hearings. “Like Judge Motley, I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building, ‘Equal Justice Under Law,’ are a reality and not just an ideal.”