Two hundred and thirty-two years, 116 justices, 108 white men, six women, two Black men and one Latino woman later, the United States Supreme Court will finally have an African American woman serving as an associate justice.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who will succeed Justice Stephen Breyer upon his retirement later this year, earned confirmation Thursday with a 53-47 vote, breaking the glass ceiling after America’s first Black female vice president, Kamala Harris, presided over the process to confirm her.
“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,” Jackson proclaimed Friday during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House.
“But we’ve made it. We’ve made it. All of us. All of us,” she declared. “Our children are telling me that they see now more than ever that here in America, anything is possible.”
Jackson said she has been flooded with thousands of meaningful notes from children and others.
She said the letters from young ones touched her deeply.
“Because more than anything, they speak directly to the hope and promise of America,” she asserted. “[Children] also tell me that I am a role model, which I take both as an opportunity and as a huge responsibility.
“I am feeling up to the task, primarily because I know that I am not alone,” Jackson said. “I am standing on the shoulders of my own role models. Generations of Americans who never had anything close to this kind of opportunity, but who got up every day and went to work believing in the promise of America.”
President Joe Biden proudly acknowledged his history-making nomination and the incoming justice.
“I mean this from the bottom my heart. This is going to let so much sunshine on so many young women, so many young Black women,” Biden offered. “We’re going to look back and see this as a moment of real change in American history.”
Harris, who proudly and demonstrably nervously presided over the Senate vote, said Jackson’s confirmation served a higher purpose.
“This will answer fundamental questions about who we are and what kind of country we live in,” Harris said. “You will inspire generations of leaders. They will watch your confirmation hearings and read your decisions in the years to come. Today is indeed a wonderful day.”
The arduous and volatile confirmation hearings served to underscore why more than 3,800 individuals have served on federal benches in the United States, but only 70 have been Black women.
Following four days of public testimony and a contentious grilling of Jackson by Republicans denounced by many as racially charged, the Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked 11-11 on Monday on a vote to move the nomination to the full chamber.
Jackson’s nomination moved forward despite the tie, based on Senate rules and a Democrat majority in the upper chamber.
On Thursday, members again engaged in a debate over confirmation, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer cut arguments off before the final vote.
Ironically, Republicans changed the rules for Supreme Court nominees in 2017 to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch, a pick of former President Donald Trump. That move allowed for a similar majority to vote to limit debate.
While all 50 Democrats in the U.S. Senate voted in favor of Jackson, Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were the only Republicans to cast ballots of approval.
“With this extraordinary, glass-breaking moment, Black girls across the United States will have more than their dreams of being a Supreme Court Justice to demonstrate ‘that with hard work, determination, and love, it can be done,'” said D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5). “It is my honor to know Judge Jackson, and I believe we will be one step closer to our pursuit of a more perfect union when she is sworn in as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Jackson grew up in Miami. According to the White House, during a 2017 lecture, Jackson traced her love of the law back to sitting next to her father in their apartment as he tackled his law school homework.
A speech and debate star, Jackson was elected “mayor” of Palmetto Junior High and student body president of Miami Palmetto Senior High School.
“But like many Black women, Judge Jackson still faced naysayers,” senior White House officials wrote. “When Judge Jackson told her high school guidance counselor, she wanted to attend Harvard, the guidance counselor warned that Judge Jackson should not set her sights so high.”
Jackson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, then attended Harvard Law School, where she graduated cum laude and was an editor of the Harvard Law Review.
In 2021, Jackson earned confirmation on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She also served on the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and President Barack Obama nominated Jackson as district court judge in 2012.
Jackson also served as vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, clerked for Justice Breyer and worked as a federal public defender. She will be the first former federal public defender to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This is a special day for Black communities and for all Americans and marks the start of a new era for the judicial branch of the United States,” said Spencer Overton, the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “We are celebrating this joyful moment with Judge Jackson and reflecting on the significant impact she will have on our nation over the next several decades.”