Nominating the first Black woman to America’s top court was the easy part for Joe Biden

WASHINGTON—At the White House Friday afternoon, the first Black woman to serve as vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris, stood alongside the first Black woman nominated to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.

With them was the guy who lives in that building, the old white man who had asked each of them to serve in those roles.

“For too long, our government and our courts haven’t looked like America,” Biden said, after praising Jackson’s credentials, “brilliant legal mind,” pragmatic understanding of the law to make it work for “working people,” and dedication to constitutional principles. “I believe it’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation.”

Judge Jackson was able to commute to the announcement from here home in Washington, where she has been serving as a federal DC circuit appellate judge. It is her hometown, though she was raised in Florida where here parents were teachers and her uncle served as chief of the Miami police department. She attended Harvard as both an undergraduate and a law student, like the judge she is replacing, Justice Stephen Breyer. She clerked under Breyer before serving as a public defender, and then a lawyer in private practice. She’s served as a judge since 2012, when she was appointed by Barack Obama to the federal court, and was elevated to the district appellate court by Biden last year. Her husband is a surgeon in Washington and she has two daughters.

“As it happens, I share a birthday with the first Black woman ever to be appointed as a federal judge, the Honourable Constance Baker Motley,” Jackson said in her remarks, after thanking Biden, her family, God, and her legal mentors. “Today, I proudly stand on Judge Motley’s shoulders,” she said. “And if I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed, as the next associate justice of the Supreme Court of the 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.”

Her nomination serves to fulfil a campaign promise Biden made two years ago, that his first appointment to the court would break the glass ceiling for Black women. If she’s confirmed, she will be the third African American to serve on the Supreme Court (Thurgood Marshall was appointed in 1967, Clarence Thomas was appointed in 1991 and continues to serve on the court), and will join three other women currently serving on the bench alongside five men. The other candidates Biden is said to have interviewed are also Black women, including Leondra Kruger and Michelle Childs.

Jackson’s appointment, a conscious effort to lift a historically neglected demographic, comes as the political opposition to Biden has been worked into a froth over racial issues. Obsessions with so-called critical race theory have been the subject of laws and state gubernatorial campaigns. And resentment of “woke” attempts to be aware of and compensate for historical racism have fuelled bitter feelings among a segment of the majority white population that sees its place in society as endangered. This has fuelled Republican party politics in recent years, partly explains the movement that rose up around former president Donald Trump, and has in some cases led to violence. Related issues are even on the current Supreme Court docket, which will soon hear a case challenging affirmative action racial preferences in university admissions criteria.

Even in that environment, Jackson’s selection and the process that led to it have not been a target for many Republicans in Washington. “Honestly, I did not think that was inappropriate,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said this week, pointing out that former presidents Ronald Reagan and Trump had specifically selected women to fill roles on the court.

Jackson has twice before been confirmed to judicial roles by the Senate, and drawn some votes in those cases from still-serving Republican Senators Lindsey Graham, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins. In the armchair quarterback environment of U.S. national court-watching, that history of bipartisan support is thought to be one factor Biden would have considered a big plus for Jackson.

In her last confirmation hearing, former Republican vice-presidential candidate Rand Paul — who is related to her by marriage, testified in favour of her character as a judge and a person.

In the weeks and possibly months to come, Jackson will need to be confirmed by a Senate evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and the hearings before confirmation votes have been punishing partisan meat-grinders. Barack Obama’s choice to fill one vacancy in the last year of his term was blocked by Republicans altogether (Merrick Garland, his nominee, now serves as Biden’s attorney general).

Jackson’s relatively short time on the appellate court offers only a small body of her work to study, but that work does in some places touch on the ongoing partisan battles of the U.S. culture war. In addition to ruling in favour of labour unions in one case and striking down a Trump immigration process (a decision that was overturned on appeal), she ruled against the Trump administration’s attempt to shield an official from testifying before Congress, saying “presidents aren’t kings,” and then signed the order that released Trump administration documents to the Jan. 6 congressional committee.

And she played a role in the “pizzagate” conspiracy case that was the precursor to the QAnon movement, sentencing the man who brought a gun to a Washington restaurant believing it to be part of a political sex-trafficking ring to four years in prison.

Though she is seen as a “liberal” judge, she replaces another liberal and is not expected to immediately influence the ideological balance of the court, which currently has a six-to-three conservative majority.


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