WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Friday nominated Federal Appeals Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, the first black woman chosen to serve on a court that once declared her race unworthy of citizenship and endorsed American segregation.
Introducing Jackson to the White House, Biden said, “I believe it’s time we had a court that reflects all the talent and greatness of our nation.”
With his nominee at his side, the president praised her for having “a pragmatic understanding that the law should work for the American people.” He said, “She strives to be fair, to do things right, to do justice.”
In Jackson, Biden delivered on his campaign promise to make the historic appointment and further diversify a court staffed entirely by white men for nearly two centuries.
He also chose a female barrister who would be the High Court’s first former public defender, although she also has the elite legal training of other judges.
Jackson would be the second black member of the current tribunal – Clarence Thomas, a conservative, is the other – and only the third in history. She would replace Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, 83, who is retiring at the end of term this summer, so she will not change the court’s 6-3 Conservative majority.
Jackson would join the court as it weighs abortion right cuts and considers ending affirmative action in college admissions and restricting suffrage efforts to increase representation of minorities.
She would only be the sixth woman to serve on the court, but she would already join three others, including the first Latina, Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
In brief remarks, Jackson thanked Biden, saying she was “humbled by the extraordinary honor of this nomination.” She pointed to her family’s first-hand experience with the entire justice system, as judges and lawyers, an uncle who was Miami’s police chief and another who was jailed for drug trafficking.
She also spoke about the historic nature of her nomination, noting that she shared a birthday with Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to be confirmed to the federal bench.
“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 my career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to uphold the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded will inspire future generations of Americans,” she said.
Jackson, 51, once worked as one of Breyer’s paralegals early in his legal career. She attended Harvard as an undergraduate and law school, and served on the US Sentencing Commission, the agency that develops federal sentencing policy, before becoming a federal judge in 2013.
His nomination is subject to confirmation by the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority by a wafer-thin 50-50 margin with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. Party leaders have promised a quick but deliberate review.
Only White House staff, Jackson’s family and the media attended Friday’s ceremony, in part because the Senate is out of session this week.
Everyone wore masks because of the pandemic, with Biden and Jackson removing theirs to speak. He leaned down to pull out a desk step for her to stand on while she made her remarks.
Its introduction came two years to the day after Biden, then struggling to win the Democratic presidential nomination, pledged during a debate in South Carolina to nominate a black woman if a post were vacant.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said in a statement that the panel will “immediately begin” moving forward with consideration of an “extraordinary candidate.” The senators have set a tentative goal of confirmation by April 8, when they will leave for a two-week spring break. Hearings could begin as early as mid-March.
This timeline could be complicated by a number of things, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the prolonged absence of Democratic Senator Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, who suffered a stroke last month and is absent for several weeks. Democrats would need Lujan’s vote to confirm Biden’s pick if no Republicans back her.
Once the nomination is sent to the Senate, it is up to the Senate Judiciary Committee to review the nominee and hold confirmation hearings. Once the committee has approved a nomination, it is presented to the Senate for a final vote.
Biden and Senate Democrats are hoping for a bipartisan vote on the nomination, but it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to win over GOP senators after bitterly partisan confirmation battles under President Donald Trump. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of three Republicans who voted to confirm Jackson to the appeals court last year, had pushed Biden to nominate a different candidate from his home state, Judge J Michelle Childs, who was also favored by the Home State. Representative James Clyburn, an ally of Biden.
Graham said earlier this month that his vote would be “very problematic” if it were anyone else, and he expressed his disappointment in a tweet on Friday. Anticipating a likely Republican line of attack, he and several others on the right said Biden was going with the “radical left” choice.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he looked forward to meeting with Jackson and “studying his case, his legal opinions and his legal philosophy.” But he noted that he voted against her a year ago.
Biden said he was interested in selecting a candidate in Breyer’s mold who could be a persuasive force with his fellow judges. Although Breyer’s votes tended to place him left of center on increasingly conservative ground, he frequently saw gray in situations that his colleagues were more likely to find black or white.
“Judge Breyer — the members of the Senate will decide whether I take your seat,” Jackson said Friday, praising the retired judge’s “civility, grace, pragmatism and generosity of spirit.”
“But please know that I can never fill your shoes,” she said.
Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said: “With her exceptional qualifications and her record of impartiality, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson will be a judge who upholds the Constitution and protects the rights of all Americans, including including the voiceless and most vulnerable.”
As part of his research process, Biden, longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also interviewed Childs and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, according to a person familiar with the matter. He consulted with a range of legal experts and legislators from both sides and delved into the legal writings of the finalists.
Jackson serves on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a position Biden elevated her to last year from her previous job as a federal trial court judge. Three current justices – Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts, the chief justice – have previously served on the same appeals court.
Jackson was confirmed for the post in a 53-44 Senate vote, winning the support of three Republicans: Graham, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
In one of Jackson’s most high-profile rulings, as a trial court judge, she ordered former White House attorney Don McGahn to appear before Congress. It was a setback for Trump’s efforts to prevent his top aides from testifying. The case was appealed and an agreement was eventually reached for McGahn’s testimony.
As an appeals court judge, she was part of a three-judge panel that ruled in December against Trump’s efforts to shield documents from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 uprising. 2021 at the US Capitol.
Jackson was born in Washington, DC, and raised in Miami. She said her parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, chose her name to express their pride in her family’s African ancestry. They asked an aunt who was in the Peace Corps in Africa at the time to send a list of African girl names and they chose Ketanji Onyika, which they were told meant “beautiful”.
Jackson traces her interest in law to when she was in kindergarten and her father was in law school and they sat together at the dining room table, her with coloring books and him with law books. Her father became a county school board attorney and her mother was a high school principal. A brother, nine years her junior, has served in the military, including in Iraq, and is now also a lawyer.
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman, Jessica Gresko and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.