Senate Confirms Ketanji Brown Jackson as First Black Woman to Serve on U.S. Supreme Court

Ketanji Brown Jackson has been confirmed as the first African-American woman to serve as a justice of the United States Supreme Court.

On April 7, 2022, by a vote of 53-47, the U.S. Senate confirmed President Joe Biden’s nomination of Judge Jackson to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, for whom she previously served as a law clerk. Jackson will be sworn in after Breyer’s retirement takes effect at the end of the 2021-22 Supreme Court term.

“I have dedicated my career to public service because I love this country and our Constitution and the rights that make us free,” Jackson said in comments at the White House following her confirmation. “It has taken 232 years and 115 prior appointments for a Black woman to be selected to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States,” she said. “But we’ve made it. We’ve made it, all of us. … In my family, it took just one generation to go from segregation to the Supreme Court of the United States.”

After contentious confirmation hearings, Jackson received the support of all 50 Democratic Senators, as well as three Republicans. Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Jackson’s work representing Guantánamo Bay detainees during her time as a federal public defender. “Federal public defenders do not get to pick their clients,” she said, explaining that the right to representation is a “core constitutional value,” even for people accused of the most serious crimes.

A 1996 graduate of Harvard Law School, Jackson clerked for Judge Patti B. Saris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts and Judge Bruce M. Selya of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, before receiving a clerkship for Justice Breyer during the 1999-2000 Supreme Court term. Her criminal justice experience includes working as an Assistant Federal Public Defender in the appeals division of the Office of the Federal Public Defender in the District of Columbia and serving on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, including three years as its Vice Chair.

In 2012, President Barack Obama nominated Jackson to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and she was confirmed by voice vote by the Senate in March 2013. In June 2021, the Senate confirmed her nomination by President Biden to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Jackson will be the first Supreme Court Justice to have worked in a federal public defender’s office. In a column for Washington Monthly, constitutional scholar Garrett Epps noted the significance of that milestone. “Without a zealous defense, criminal ‘justice’ is merely brute force wielded against the powerless,” Epps wrote. The accused terrorists Jackson represented while in the federal defender’s office “are human, and our own Supreme Court has said that they have rights under the Constitution, and those rights mean nothing without legal protection.”

“In the midst of many joys at this historic moment,” Epps concluded, “I rejoice that the Supreme Court’s next justice has, at times, spoken for those who would otherwise have no voice.”

Sources

Nolan D. McCaskill and David G. Savage, Senate con­firms Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to Supreme Court, Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2022; Jessica Gresko and Mark Sherman, Judge Jackson grilled on Guantanamo detainee rep­re­sen­ta­tion, Associated Press, March 22, 2022; Keith Reed, It’s Official: Ketanji Brown Jackson Is First Black Woman US Supreme Court Justice (Updated), The Root, April 8, 2022; Garrett Epps, Ketanji Brown Jackson Was a Public Defender. Here’s Why That’s a Great Thing., Washington Monthly, April 6, 2022; READ: Ketanji Brown Jackson’s remarks at the White House after her Supreme Court con­fir­ma­tion, CNN, April 82022.

Read Judge Jackson’s offi­cial biography.