The Supremely Historic Confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson

President Biden’s historic nomination of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson embodied our decades-long work and demands to strengthen the federal judiciary with incredible judges who possess a demonstrated commitment to civil and human rights and who bring with them previously excluded professional and personal diversity. Justice Jackson’s confirmation — one year ago today — provides a spectacular example of not only how important this work is, but also of the difficult confirmation process — especially for women of color.

The following is a condensed excerpt from our recent report, “Persevere: Our Ongoing Fight for an Equal Justice Judiciary.”

A nomination years in the making

Nine months before winning the presidency, Joe Biden heeded the calls of Black women and allies and pledged to voters that he would nominate a Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. On January 26, 2022, Justice Stephen Breyer announced he would retire from the Supreme Court at the end of that term. Justice Breyer’s legacy was celebrated by the civil rights community, and his retirement created a tremendous moment for President Biden to deliver on his promise.

On February 25, during Black History Month, President Biden announced the nomination of then-Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson — Justice Breyer’s former Supreme Court clerk — who since 2021 had been serving as a judge on the D.C. Circuit. “Her opinions are always carefully reasoned, tethered to precedent, and demonstrate respect for how the law impacts everyday people,” President Biden said during remarks in the White House. “And she strives to ensure that everyone understands why she made a decision, what the law is, and what it means to them. She strives to be fair, to get it right, to do justice.”

When Justice Jackson spoke following the president’s remarks, she shared what she referred to as an “interesting coincidence.”

“As it happens,” she said, “I share a birthday with the first Black woman ever to be appointed as a federal judge: the Honorable Constance Baker Motley…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. Judge Motley’s life and career has been a true inspiration to me as I have pursued this professional path.”

It was more than an interesting coincidence — it was perfect symmetry. Judge Motley was a civil rights titan who wrote the original complaint in the landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. During her confirmation hearings in March 2022, Justice Jackson spoke about her parents attending racially segregated schools, but also noted that — when she grew up in Miami in a post-Brown world — she attended diverse, public institutions. “The fact that we had come that far was to me a testament to the hope and the promise of this country, the greatness of America, that in one generation — one generation — we could go from racially segregated schools in Florida to have me sitting here as the first Floridian ever to be nominated to the Supreme Court.” It wasn’t just a testament to the greatness of America. It was also a testament to the greatness of Judge Motley and the many other civil rights champions who helped pave the way.

The confirmation hearings get underway

Justice Jackson’s nomination was a long overdue historic milestone for our nation: Fifty-five years after Justice Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation as the first Black Supreme Court justice, Jackson would be the first Black woman on the Court. She would also be the first former public defender to serve on the Court, making her the first justice with any significant criminal defense experience since Justice Marshall’s retirement in 1991.

Justice Jackson’s confirmation hearings began on March 21 — the same date that, in 1965, thousands of courageous marchers left Selma, Alabama headed to the capital city of Montgomery in their quest for the freedom to vote. Justice Jackson’s four-day hearing, like the multi-day march from Selma decades earlier, represented yet another piece of this country’s long struggle for a more inclusive democracy. And like that march — which resulted in swift passage of the Voting Rights Act — the impact and outcome of those confirmation hearings will reverberate for decades to come.

This moment matters

During the hearing, several senators spoke about what the moment meant for America. “Judge Jackson’s nomination breaks an artificially confining mold of our past and opens up a more promising, potential-filled future for us all as Americans,” said Senator Cory Booker, the first Black man to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, during his opening statement.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, the first woman elected to the Senate from Minnesota, remarked that Justice Jackson was “opening a door that’s long been shut to so many. And by virtue of your strong presence, your skills, your experience — you are showing so many little girls and little boys across the country that anything, and everything, is possible.”

Justice Jackson knew that was true. When answering a question from Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was the first woman to ever serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the first woman to serve as its ranking member, Justice Jackson noted the importance of representation on the Supreme Court. “Since I was nominated to this position, I have received so many notes and letters and photos from little girls around the country who tell me that they are so excited for this opportunity and that they thought about the law in new ways because I am a woman, because I am a Black woman,” Jackson said. “We want, I think, as a country for everyone to believe that they can do things like sit on the Supreme Court. And so having meaningful numbers of women and people of color, I think, matters.”

The civil rights community testifies

On the fourth and final day of the confirmation hearing, when the committee heard from a panel of outside witnesses, Leadership Conference Interim President and CEO Wade Henderson testified on behalf of the civil rights community. Nearly 13 years earlier, Henderson had testified before the committee in support of now-Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s historic confirmation as the first Latina — and first woman of color — to serve on our nation’s highest court. He was there, yet again, to ensure the civil rights community’s voice was heard. 

“The constitutional responsibility to provide ‘advice and consent’ on those who might be federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, is one of the most solemn duties of senators. This moment demands that you take this duty seriously,” Henderson said in his testimony. “We believe that after reviewing her exceptional qualifications, hearing her testimony, and examining her stellar record of protecting the constitutional rights of all people, the decision should be clear: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is exactly the kind of nominee who all senators should support and vote to confirm to our nation’s highest court.”

Henderson also called out questioning from some Republican committee members — saying it “bordered on the demagogic.” As he stated: “My hope is that the partisan considerations that may have affected some in the questioning of Judge Jackson will be set aside, and that members of this committee, out of their love for the country and its people and the future of the Court, will do what’s right.” This was echoed later in an April 1 letter sent by The Leadership Conference and 55 other organizations calling out the insidious behavior and demagoguery on display during the hearing by some Republican committee members.

A historic confirmation

On the morning of April 4, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Justice Jackson’s nomination. Fittingly, Justice Jackson’s committee vote occurred on poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou’s birthday. As Angelou wrote in one of her best-known poems: “You may shoot me with your words / You may cut me with your eyes / You may kill me with your hatefulness / But still, like air, I’ll rise.” As hard as some senators tried to tear her down, Justice Jackson soared.

The committee vote was tied along party lines, thereby requiring an additional discharge vote to bring her nomination to the Senate floor. Leader Schumer’s motion to discharge her nomination from the committee passed with bipartisan support by a vote of 53-47. On April 7, after additional procedural votes, the Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson to be an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court — officially making her the first Black woman and first former public defender ever to serve on our nation’s highest court. All Senate Democrats — plus Republican Senators Collins, Murkowski, and Romney — voted to confirm her.

The following day, President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Justice Jackson celebrated the confirmation and reflected on the importance of this moment. “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. But we’ve made it. We’ve made it, all of us,” Jackson said.

Jackson also paid tribute to the civil rights champions who helped light the way for her, noting the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Judge Constance Baker Motley.As Justice Jackson said, “ I am just the very lucky first inheritor of the dream of liberty and justice for all.” 

After coordinating our vast coalition of civil and human rights organizations in urging the Senate to confirm a #JusticeForAll, The Leadership Conference celebrated what our coalition had worked for decades to achieve. And it didn’t take long for Justice Jackson to show why her confirmation mattered.

A new Supreme Court term begins

On June 30, in advance of her first term on the Supreme Court beginning on October 3, Justice Jackson was sworn in. Justice Jackson’s questioning during oral arguments in important cases being heard by the Court this term on crucial civil rights issues such as voting rights, LGBTQ rights, and affirmative action has shown the importance of her confirmation and her participation on our highest court. She has demonstrated a deep and nuanced understanding not just of the law, but of the rights of all people in America.

For example, on the second day of the Court’s term, the justices heard oral argument in Merrill v. Milligan — an important Alabama voting rights case that represents yet another frontal attack on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). The state of Alabama made the shocking argument before the Supreme Court that redistricting should be race-neutral and that to the extent Section 2 of the VRA requires otherwise, it should be held unconstitutional. This provoked a powerful history lesson from Justice Jackson, who reminded us that the express purpose of the VRA was to protect Black voters and that the framers adopted the foundational 14th Amendment in a race-conscious manner. As Justice Jackson said, “They were trying to ensure that people who had been discriminated against, the freedmen during the Reconstruction period, were actually brought equal to everyone else in the society.”

Later in October, when the justices heard arguments in a pair of affirmative action cases, Justice Jackson offered a hypothetical about two university applicants — one whose family has been in North Carolina for generations, since before the Civil War, and one whose family has also been in North Carolina for generations, but had been enslaved. It was important to both applicants, given their families’ backgrounds, to attend the university. “Now, as I understand your no-race-conscious admissions rule, these two applicants would have a dramatically different opportunity to tell their family stories and to have them count,” Justice Jackson said to the lawyer arguing the case. “The first applicant would be able to have his family background considered and valued by the institution as part of its consideration of whether or not to admit him, while the second one wouldn’t be able to because his story is in many ways bound up with his race and with the race of his ancestors.” As Justice Jackson pointed out, considering the first student’s background and giving them a legacy benefit would be permissible under the lawyer’s rule, while considering the second student’s race would not be. 

Justice Jackson is a brilliant jurist who understands history, the law, and how her decisions could impact communities. Her presence on the Court and her incisive questions have already mattered during this term — and will continue to matter during every term moving forward.

And just like the trailblazing civil rights titans before her, Justice Jackson’s judicial legacy will inspire generations to come.