Senate Confirms Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court

President Biden and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson / Getty Images
April 7, 2022

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed to the Supreme Court on Thursday, fulfilling President Joe Biden's pledge to base the nomination on identity and place the first black woman on the Supreme Court.

The vote was 53-47 with 3 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats in support of her confirmation. The judge's confirmation was not seriously in doubt after swing voters in the chamber announced they would support Jackson, even if the process was bumpier than the early signs suggested.

Leaders in both parties can claim victory out of the process. Biden delivered on a first-order campaign promise, shoring up his standing with black political leaders at a moment of vulnerability. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans successfully rehearsed a tough on crime message for the November elections. And they scored a sensational viral clip out of Jackson's confirmation hearing when the judge declined to define a woman in a colloquy with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.).

Those partial victories are an important political test for Republican lawmakers, who had not run an opposition to a Supreme Court nominee since Justice Elena Kagan's confirmation over a decade ago. In a break with recent confirmation battles, the GOP caucus was not firmly united on Jackson's nomination. Sens. Susan Collins (R., Maine.), Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), and Mitt Romney (R., Utah) voted to confirm Jackson.

Jackson will have ample opportunity to assert herself next term if she wishes to do so. Starting in October, the Court will run a veritable gauntlet of social controversies by hearing cases involving anti-Asian bias at Harvard, a Christian website designer who declined to set up wedding websites for same-sex couples, the application of the Voting Rights Act to legislative redistricting, and the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal statute prized by tribes. Other marquee cases are lurking on the Supreme Court's docket and may yet be set for argument.

While Jackson indicated during her confirmation hearing that she plans to recuse herself from the Harvard case—she serves on the university's board of overseers—she'll likely be able to participate in a companion case involving similar claims against the University of North Carolina.

The disputes will provide an early test of the character Jackson cut during her confirmation hearings. Facing Republicans inquiring about her judicial philosophy, Jackson relied on tried-and-true bromides from past hearings about restraint and judicial modesty. As such, Jackson's actual profile as a justice could be readily discernible early in her tenure. It remains to be seen whether she will angle for consensus and caution as her predecessor, Justice Stephen Breyer, so often did, or take up the role of a passionate dissenter against the Court's rightward drift.

New justices are always carefully watched, and Jackson will be studied more carefully still, in part due to the historic nature of her confirmation and given her limited record as an appeals court judge. One initial question is whether Jackson will lunge into the thrust-and-parry of Supreme Court business or be more circumspect. Some new members, like Justice Neil Gorsuch, asserted themselves immediately through aggressive questioning at oral argument and prolific production of separate opinions. Other new arrivals, like Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, have kept a lower profile, deferring to senior members during questioning and seldom writing separately.

It's not clear when Jackson will join her new colleagues at the High Court. Breyer's retirement is effective on the confirmation of his successor, but the Court's annual summer hiatus provides a natural transition window for the new justice. And Breyer will likely have outstanding business to finish before leaving the Court at the end of June.