Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearings: 1st Black female Supreme Court pick faces senators

Historic confirmation hearings began on Monday for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who would be the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee promised to ask "tough questions" about Jackson’s judicial record and philosophy, while Democrats offered praise of President Joe Biden’s pick.

Speaking to senators during her opening statement Monday at her high court confirmation hearing, Jackson said she would defend the Constitution and decide cases "without fear or favor" if she is confirmed to the Supreme Court.

"I decide cases from a neutral posture," she said. "I evaluate the facts, and I interpret and apply the law to the facts of the case before me, without fear or favor, consistent with my judicial oath."

Jackson added that she is "humbled and honored" by her historic nomination.

She also took time in her remarks for a "special moment" to acknowledge her daughters, Talia and Leila. 

"I am saving a special moment in this introduction for my daughters, Talia and Leila. Girls, I know it has not been easy as I have tried to navigate the challenges of juggling my career and motherhood. And I fully admit that I did not always get the balance right. But I hope that you have seen that with hard work, determination, and love, it can be done. I am so looking forward to seeing what each of you chooses to do with your amazing lives in this incredible country. I love you so much," she said.

The 51-year-old Supreme Court nominee has served as a federal judge for the past nine years, was set to give her opening statement later Monday and answer questions on Tuesday and Wednesday from the panel’s 11 Democratic and 11 Republican senators.

She’s had some previous experience with this group. Last year, Jackson appeared before the same committee after Biden chose her to fill an opening on the federal appeals court in Washington, just down the hill from the Supreme Court.

Biden’s choosing of Jackson delivers on his campaign promise to make the historic appointment and to further diversify a court that was made up entirely of White men for almost two centuries. Jackson would be the current court’s second Black justice — Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative, is the other — and just the third in history. 

"It’s not easy being the first. Often, you have to be the best, in some ways the bravest," Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the committee chairman, said shortly after the proceedings began.

Senate Confirmation Hearing For Supreme Court Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson

Ketanji Brown Jackson, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court nominee for U.S. President Joe Biden, arrives to a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 2022. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty I

In her own remarks last month, Jackson noted how she shares a birthday with the late U.S. District Judge Constance Baker Motley — the first African American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, and the first to serve as a federal judge.

"Today I proudly stand on Judge Motley's shoulders, sharing not only her birthday but also her steadfast and courageous commitment to equal justice under law," Jackson said on Feb. 25 after being officially introduced as Biden's chosen nominee.

Her nomination came after a "rigorous process" to identify a replacement for Justice Stephen Breyer, 83, who is retiring at the end of the term this summer. The Harvard-trained lawyer with a resume that includes two years as a federal public defender once worked as a high court law clerk to Breyer early in her legal career.

The American Bar Association, which evaluates judicial nominees, on Friday gave Jackson its highest rating, unanimously "well qualified."

Jackson would also be only the sixth woman to serve on the court, and her confirmation would mean that for the first time four women would sit together on the nine-member, conservative-dominated court. The current court includes three women, one of whom is the court’s first Latina, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Democrats hold the majority by a razor-thin 50-50 margin with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker. Barring any significant missteps, party leaders hoped to wrap up Jackson’s confirmation before Easter. It wasn’t yet clear how aggressively Republicans will go after Jackson, given that her confirmation would not alter the court's 6-3 conservative majority.

The committee's senior Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, promised Republicans would "ask tough questions about Judge Jackson’s judicial philosophy," without turning the hearings into a "spectacle."

But some Republicans have signaled they could use Jackson's nomination to try to brand Democrats as soft on crime, an emerging theme in GOP midterm election campaigns. Biden has chosen several former public defenders for life-tenured judicial posts. In addition, Jackson served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency created by Congress to reduce disparity in federal prison sentences.

"Judge Jackson is not anti-law enforcement. She’s not soft on crime," Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., said, noting that members of Jackson’s family have worked in law enforcement.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he was not interested in "trapping" Jackson during the hearings, calling her "enormously accomplished," but has raised concerns over her record on sex offender cases.

"I’ve noticed an alarming pattern when it comes to Judge Jackson’s treatment of sex offenders, especially those preying on children," Hawley wrote on Twitter last week in a thread that was echoed by the Republican National Committee. Hawley is one of several committee Republicans, along with Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who are potential 2024 presidential candidates.

The White House pushed back forcefully against the criticism as "toxic and weakly presented misinformation." Sentencing expert Douglas Berman, an Ohio State law professor, wrote on his blog that Jackson’s record shows she is skeptical of the range of prison terms recommended for child pornography cases, "but so too were prosecutors in the majority of her cases and so too are district judges nationwide."

During his opening remarks, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was one of many who pointed to the handling of previous Supreme Court nominees, drawing comparisons between the treatment of Jackson and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh was nominated by former President Donald Trump and confirmed to the high court in 2018 amid high school-era accusations of sexual misconduct, which he denied.

"You will not be vilified. You will not be attacked for your religious views. You will not be accused of something that you could not defend yourself against until it was too late," Graham said.

Graham has voted for previous Democratic nominees for the Supreme Court and was one of three Republicans to support Jackson's confirmation as an appellate judge last year. 

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., added that Justice Amy Coney Barrett was subject to repeated accusations "that were nothing more than unfiltered religious bigotry" during her confirmation hearings.

Who is Ketanji Brown Jackson?

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed in 2021 to the D.C.-based appellate court as a U.S. Circuit Judge, a position Biden elevated her to from her previous job as a federal trial court judge. Three current justices — Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts, the chief justice — previously served on the same appeals court.

Jackson was confirmed to the appeals court by a 53-44 vote in June 2021, winning the backing of three Republicans: South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. That could be important to Biden, who has reached out for GOP support during the Supreme Court nominee search.

Another interesting GOP connection: Jackson is related by marriage to former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Jackson's husband, Dr. Patrick Jackson, is the brother of William Jackson, who married Ryan’s wife’s sister, Dana.


U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson poses for photographs while visiting Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) in her office in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 17, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Miami. She has said that 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 girls’ names and they picked Ketanji Onyika, which they were told meant "lovely one."

She traces her interest in the law to when she was in preschool and her father was in law school and they would sit together at the dining room table, she with coloring books and he with law books. Her father became an attorney for the county school board and her mom was a high school principal. She has a brother who is nine years younger who served in the Army, including in Iraq, and is now a lawyer.

In high school, she was the president of her public high school class and a debate champion. Richard B. Rosenthal, a lawyer who has known her since junior high, said there was no question she would rise to the top of whatever field she chose, describing her as "destined for greatness." His older brother, Stephen F. Rosenthal, a classmate and friend from Miami who also went to college and law school with her, called her a "natural leader" and someone with "penetrating intelligence."

Jackson attended Harvard, where she studied government but also was involved in drama and musical theater and part of an improv group called On Thin Ice. At one point she was assigned actor Matt Damon as a drama class partner, she has said, acknowledging he probably wouldn’t remember her. He does not, Damon previously confirmed through a representative, but added: "That’s so cool!"

Also at Harvard, she met her husband, who is a surgeon at Georgetown University Hospital, and the couple has two daughters.

From 1999 to 2000, Jackson was a law clerk for Breyer on the Supreme Court. Deborah Pearlstein, a law clerk to Justice John Paul Stevens the same year Jackson worked for Breyer, recalled Jackson as funny, insightful and "incredibly good at her job."

"I don’t know anybody there at the time who didn’t get along with Ketanji," Pearlstein said.

Jackson has since worked for large law firms over the course of her career but also was a public defender. After she was nominated to serve on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the agency that develops federal sentencing policy, she taught herself to knit to deal with the stress of the nomination and confirmation process, she has said.

As a commissioner, she was part of a unanimous vote to allow thousands of people already in federal prison for crack-related crimes get their sentences reduced as a result of a new law.

And Jackson’s work on the Sentencing Commission paved the way for her to become a federal trial court judge, where one of the things she displayed in her office was a copy of a famous, handwritten petition to the Supreme Court from a Florida prisoner, Clarence Gideon. The Supreme Court took his case and issued a landmark decision guaranteeing a lawyer for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one.

Jackson had served as a federal trial court judge since 2013, nominated by former President Barack Obama.

Jackson is currently a member of the Judicial Conference Committee on Defender Services, as well as the Board of Overseers of Harvard University and the Council of the American Law Institute. She also currently serves on the board of Georgetown Day School and the United States Supreme Court Fellows Commission.