On Monday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will begin four days of hearings on the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, a critical step in the confirmation process that could make her the first black woman to serve on the nation’s highest court.
Jackson’s nomination by President Joe Biden last month fulfilled a campaign promise, made two years ago, in which Biden said that if he had the opportunity to nominate a new Supreme Court Justice, he would select a black woman.
Twice-confirmed to federal judgeships already, and a third time to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Jackson is expected to be confirmed by the evenly-divided Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris can cast the deciding vote in the event of a 50-50 tie.
However, Jackson has received some Republican support in the past, and it remains possible that the vote to confirm her could be bipartisan.
Jackson, aged 51, was born in Washington but grew up in Miami, Florida. She attended Harvard University as an undergraduate, graduating magna cum laude in 1992, and returned a year later to attend Harvard Law School, where she served as supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review. She graduated in 1996.
After law school, Brown served as a clerk for judges of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. After a year in private practice, she secured a clerkship with Justice Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose seat she has been nominated to fill.
In addition to spending several years in private practice, Jackson served as an assistant federal public defender in Washington, D.C., representing clients before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
In 2010, then-President Barack Obama nominated Jackson for the United States Sentencing Commission, where she served as vice chair until 2014. In 2012, Obama nominated Jackson to a seat on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, and she was confirmed by the full Senate in March 2013.
President Biden nominated Jackson to the seat she currently holds on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Jackson was confirmed in June 2021, with unanimous support from Senate Democrats as well as three Senate Republicans.
In remarks after President Biden announced her nomination, Jackson said, “If I am 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.”
Jackson’s nomination has not been without controversy. Biden’s promise to elevate a black woman to the court was criticized, primarily by Republicans, as unnecessarily eliminating other qualified candidates from consideration.
The White House noted that such promises are not without precedent. In 1980, then-Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan promised to name the first woman to the Supreme Court if he were elected. He later nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the court, and she was confirmed as the first female associate justice.
Republicans have also criticized Jackson for her past work as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, where she advocated for lowering minimum sentences for possession of crack cocaine and other drug charges.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, appeared to be referring to that when, in recent remarks on Jackson’s nomination, he said, “This is a moment when issues relating to the law and the judiciary are directly hitting American families — from skyrocketing murders and carjackings; to soft-on-crime prosecutors effectively repealing laws; to open borders.”
During her time as a public defender, Jackson represented accused terrorists held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a fact that a number of conservative news outlets have used to criticize her nomination.
However, others point out that federal public defenders do not generally get to choose who they represent, and that it is their obligation to mount as effective a defense as possible within the bounds of the law, once they are assigned a client.
Brown was also highly critical of the legal processes put in place at Guantanamo Bay — criticisms that gained traction in 2007, after the government’s chief prosecutor resigned, claiming that the system was engineered to prevent acquittals.
Hearing as ‘introduction’
High-profile congressional hearings are often dismissed as political theater, but Christopher Schmidt, a professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law and co-director of the law school’s Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States, told VOA that hearings for Supreme Court nominees serve an important purpose.
“It's going to be an opportunity for the American people to learn something about Ketanji Brown Jackson,” he said. “That's one thing that confirmation hearings still perform very well. There's a lot of complaints about how they work for a variety of reasons. But one thing they do is introduce people to someone who, in most cases, they had never heard of before the nomination, and probably know relatively little about.”
Schmidt said that given Jackson’s previous confirmations and the fact that her replacement of Justice Breyer is not expected to cause a significant ideological shift in the balance of the court, he does not expect her hearings to be particularly contentious.
Speaking of Republican members of the committee, he said, “I think they’ll want to score some points about how they see the court, and obviously, the Biden administration. But I don't know that they're going to want to really have it be an aggressive hearing against this particular nominee.”