In the current majority Republican Senate, hostile partisanship is the prevalent form of communication between members. Progress is too often delayed by schoolyard arguments, making an embarrassing example of the most powerful country in the world. But on April 7, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed to the Supreme Court, making her the first Black woman to serve on the nation’s highest court. She was backed by all 50 Democrats as well as three Republicans in a 53-47 vote, proving that progress can prevail.
At 51, Judge Jackson will replace Justice Stephen Breyer who plans to retire at the end of the term. In its 233-year history, the Supreme Court has held 115 justices, of which five were women and three were people of color. Thurgood Marshall made history as the first Black man to be confirmed into the Supreme Court in 1967, before which the court’s history was written solely by white men. Clarence Thomas followed as the second Black man to be confirmed in 1991, and it took another 18 years before Sonia Sotomayor, the child of Puerto-Rican-born parents, became the first woman of color to be appointed in 2009. This year marks the first time in the court’s history that two Black justices will serve at the same time, as well as the first time that four women will serve simultaneously.
The legacy of the Supreme Court is no longer being written by white men. With Jackson’s appointment, they will find themselves in a 4-5 minority.
Judge Jackson is, however, coming into the court amid a particularly divided time in the nation and the court itself. She will join two liberal justices and six conservative justices in the midst of contentious debates, such as overturning Roe v. Wade. While the makeup of the court leans heavily toward conservatism, Jackson will bring life experience, legal experience, and judicial experience that the court has never seen before.
The late Justice Byron White, whose legacy includes opposing Roe v. Wade, for better or worse once uttered a few words of wisdom when he said, “A new justice makes a new court.” When justices are not actively working during sittings, they are discussing the issues facing the United States, working closely with one another, and, one would hope, learning from each other’s worlds of experience. Including Judge Jackson in those conversations will no doubt change the pool of thought within the nine-person court and make a difference during the next few decades of her life-long appointment.
Along with representing working mothers as the court’s second mother to serve, Judge Jackson will also be the first justice with a history in public defense and the first with experience as a criminal defense attorney since Thurgood Marshall. Having worked with detainees held at Guantanamo Bay for two and a half years during her time at the public defender’s office in Washington D.C., Judge Jackson has insights into the criminal justice system that her fellow justices lack.
Judge Jackson’s victory in the Senate followed 19 hours of what at times felt like a reality TV mockery of confirmation hearings. Confirmation hearings are meant to be a public service — a way for Americans to hear the justice explain their stances before they begin working behind closed doors — but this important tradition was undermined and wasted by many of the senators who questioned her.
These senators, Republicans Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Lindsey Graham, to name some of the most shockingly juvenile, aimed to “plant seeds of distrust” (as Harvard Law student Catherine Crevecoeurin so aptly put it in the New York Times) in the minds of the American public by questioning Judge Jackson over issues that have clickbait value and are popular in right-wing conspiracy theories. Hawley, for example, asked her about her sentencing record in a child pornography case in which she gave the defendant a three-month sentence despite a federal court ruling that sentenced him to three years in prison. His insistence on this issue harks back to the QAnon conspiracy that claims that a ring of Democrats and Hollywood elites are pedophiles.
Rather than upholding the executive standard of “advice and consent,” these questions aimed to discredit her and further the division that is already drawing a bold and jagged line through this country. Justices are no longer chosen with the best intentions for the country, scrutinized for their judicial record and take on the U.S. constitution, but rather nitpicked through the lens of the presidency and partisan division.
It seems that the days of unanimous votes during confirmation hearings, such as in 1981 with the appointment of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, are long gone. Prior to Judge Jackson’s hearing, Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed with a 50-48 vote in 2018, and Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed with a 52-48 vote in 2020.
Despite these deepened partisan lines and a divided Senate, Judge Jackson achieved a bipartisan victory, claiming the votes of Republican senators Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins.
Senator Lindsay Graham was projected to vote for Judge Jackson after voting her into D.C.’s appellate court last year, but the opposite became clear after he asked her, “On a scale of 1-10 how faithful would you say you are, in terms of religion?” following in the footsteps of his divisive peers.
Judge Jackson, miraculously, maintained her composure in the face of many more targeted questions from the Senate. This comes after a lifetime of having to work twice as hard as her white counterparts to pave her path to the Supreme Court, and with an awareness that any loss of composure would be criticized twice as heavily. She has proven to be fit to weather the storm of current partisan politics, but this begs the question; can the strength of one woman pull a nation together? Does she deserve to take on that burden just because she can?
She shouldn’t have to do it alone. But her confirmation represents the hope that this new justice will make a new court.