President Joe Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Friday, setting in motion a historic confirmation process for the first Black woman to sit on the highest court in the nation.
“Today, as we watch freedom and liberty under attack abroad, I’m here to fulfill my responsibilities under the Constitution, to preserve freedom and liberty here in the United States of America,” Biden said at the White House as he introduced Jackson.
“For too long, our government, our courts haven’t looked like America,” Biden said. “I believe it’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation with a nominee of extraordinary qualifications, and that we inspire all young people to believe that they can one day serve their country at the highest level.”
Senate Democratic leaders hope to have a vote confirming Jackson to the court by mid-April.
Jackson, 51, currently sits on DC’s federal appellate court and had been considered the front-runner for the vacancy since Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement.
“I must begin these very brief remarks by thanking God for delivering me to this point in my professional journey. My life has been blessed beyond measure and I do know that one can only come this far by faith,” Jackson said.
“Among my many blessings, and indeed the very first, is the fact that I was born in this great country,” she added. “The United States of America is the greatest beacon of hope and democracy the world has ever known. I was also blessed from my early days to have had a supportive and loving family. My mother and father, who have been married for 54 years, are at their home in Florida right now and I know that they could not be more proud.”
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Though historic, the choice of Jackson will not change the ideological makeup of the court. The court currently has six conservative justices and three liberal justices – and the retiring Breyer comes from the liberal camp. The court is already poised to continue its turn toward the right with high-profile cases and rulings expected from the court in the coming months on abortion, gun control and religious liberty issues.
Biden met with Jackson for her Supreme Court interview earlier this month, a senior administration official said, in a meeting that the White House managed to keep secret. Jackson received and accepted Biden’s offer in a call Thursday night, a source familiar with the decision told CNN, yet was present for DC Circuit Court hearings Friday morning.
The White House considered delaying the announcement, given the Russian invasion in Ukraine, but believed it was critical to get the second phase of the confirmation process moving, the official said.
Chance to excite Democrats
Biden’s pick is a chance for him to fire up a Democratic base that is less excited to vote in this year’s midterm elections than it has been over the past several election cycles. The selection gives Biden a chance to deliver on one of his top campaign promises, and he’ll hope that the Black voters who were crucial to his election win will see this as a return on their investment.
While Jackson was the leading contender, the official said the President gave “considerable weight” to other finalists, including Judge J. Michelle Childs and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger.
For more than a year, the President had familiarized himself with her work, reading many of her opinions and other writings, along with those of other contenders.
But Biden was also was impressed by her life story, including her rise from federal public defender to federal appellate judge – and her upbringing as the daughter of two public school teachers and administrators.
“Her parents grew up with segregation, but never gave up hope that their children would enjoy the true promise of America,” the President said Friday.
“Her opinions are always carefully reasoned, tethered to precedent and demonstrate respect for how the law impacts everyday people,” Biden said. “It doesn’t mean she puts her thumb on the scale of justice one way or the other. But she understands the broader impacts of her decisions, whether it’s cases addressing the rights of workers or government service. She cares about making sure that our democracy works for the American people. She listens. She looks people in the eye – lawyers, defendants victims and families – and she strives 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. That’s something all of us should remember. And it’s something I’ve thought about throughout this process.”
Eyes will now turn to the Senate, where Biden’s Democratic Party holds the thinnest possible majority. The President will hope that Jackson can garner bipartisan support, but Democrats will need all their members in Washington to ensure her confirmation.
Unlike for most major pieces of legislation, Democrats do not need Republican help to confirm a Supreme Court justice and can do it with their 50 votes and Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a deadlock. When Jackson was confirmed to the appellate bench, she had the support of three Republican senators. Harris, whom the White House said played an active role in the selection process, was working the phones Friday morning, calling senators as the news was reported.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has indicated that he wants to push a nominee through the process quickly, using Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Senate proceedings as a model for Jackson’s confirmation timeline. And Sen. Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told CNN recently that he expects to have a hearing within a few weeks of the selection.
The goal of the leadership is to have the nominee confirmed by the April 11 recess.
Jackson is expected to have her courtesy meetings with senators next week, according to a person familiar with the plans. It’s common for Supreme Court nominees to meet with the leadership on both sides, then members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Biden first committed to nominating a Black female US Supreme Court justice when he was running for president in 2020. On a debate stage in South Carolina, Biden argued that his push to make “sure there’s a Black woman on the Supreme Court” was rooted in an effort to “get everyone represented.”
Though there are currently no Black women serving in the United States Senate in a position to vote for the nominee, Black female House members, all Democrats, applauded Biden for “fulfilling his campaign promise.”
Congressional Black Caucus chair Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio said the nomination is “something that I will remember forever.” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey said Jackson will “bring a new, necessary perspective” to the court and “will also be an inspiration to Black women and girls everywhere.” Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida said she “never dreamed that, in my lifetime, I would see a Black woman nominated” to the Supreme Court.
Jackson was born in the nation’s capital but grew up in the Miami area. She was a member of the debate team at Miami Palmetto Senior High School before earning both her undergraduate degree and law degree at Harvard.
She also previously clerked for Breyer and served as a federal public defender in Washington – an experience that her backers say is fitting, given Biden’s commitment to putting more public defenders on the federal bench. She was also a commissioner on the US Sentencing Commission and served on the federal district court in DC, as an appointee of President Barack Obama, before Biden elevated her to the DC Circuit last year.
Jackson thanked Breyer in her speech.
“Justice Breyer, in particular, not only gave me the greatest job that any young lawyer could ever hope to have, but he also exemplified every day, in every way, that a Supreme Court justice can perform at the highest level of skill and integrity, while also being guided by civility, grace, pragmatism and generosity of spirit,” Jackson said. “Justice Breyer, the members of the Senate will decide if I fill your seat, but please know that I could never fill your shoes.”
At her 2021 confirmation hearing for the appellate court, she connected her family’s professions – her parents worked in public schools – to her decision to work as a public defender.
“I come from a background of public service. My parents were in public service, my brother was a police officer and (was) in the military,” she said at the time, “and being in the public defenders’ office felt very much like the opportunity to help with my skills and talents.”
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, is a relative by marriage and introduced her at the 2013 hearing for her district court nomination.
Ryan also congratulated Jackson Friday.
“Janna and I are incredibly happy for Ketanji and her entire family. Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, and for her integrity, is unequivocal,” Ryan said.
At the White House Friday, Jackson noted that an uncle was previously given a life sentence on drug charges, an issue of which she hasn’t previously spoken about publicly.
“You may have read that I have one uncle who got caught up in the drug trade and received a life sentence,” Jackson said. “That is true, but law enforcement also runs in my family. In addition to my brother, I had two uncles who served decades as police officers, one of whom became the police chief in my hometown of Miami, Florida.”
In 2008, when Jackson was in private practice and well before she became a judge, Jackson referred her uncle’s file to WilmerHale, a law firm that handles numerous clemency petitions, according to a spokesperson for the firm.
The firm submitted the petition on Brown’s behalf on October 7, 2014, and Obama commuted his sentence on November 22, 2016. According to the firm, Jackson had “no further involvement in the matter” after making the referral. Jackson’s chambers said she would decline comment on the issue.
“I am standing here today by the grace of God as testament to the love and support that I’ve received from my family,” Jackson added Friday.
Republicans signal potential opposition
As a judge in DC – where some of the most politically charged cases are filed – Jackson’s issued notable rulings touching on Congress’ ability to investigate the White House. As a district court judge, she wrote a 2019 opinion siding with House lawmakers who sought the testimony of then-White House Counsel Don McGahn. Last year, she was on the unanimous circuit panel that ordered disclosure of certain Trump White House documents to the House January 6 committee.
As a judge, some other notable cases she has in her record are a 2018 case brought federal employee unions where she blocked parts of executive orders issued by Trump, and a case where she ruled against Trump policies that expand the categories of non-citizens who could be subject to expedited removal procedures without being able to appear before a judge.
Jackson penned more than 500 opinions in the eight years she spent on the district court.
Though Biden has said that he’d pick a nominee with bipartisan appeal who is “worthy of Justice Breyer’s legacy of excellence and decency,” his decision to name the first Black woman to the court is already facing Republican opposition. Several Senate Republicans have told CNN they disagreed with the President’s decision to name a Black woman to the court rather than judging a nominee squarely on their credentials, even though Ronald Reagan and Trump both said they’d name a female justice to the Supreme Court when they were on the campaign trail.
Even before Biden nominated Jackson, GOP senators and Senate candidates were already concluding that she’d be far left, throwing cold water on the names floated as being on Biden’s potential short list and calling for a slow confirmation process. Still, Republicans are limited in their ability to block a Supreme Court nominee, and Jackson may win the support of some GOP senators.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine all voted for Jackson last summer when she was confirmed as a circuit court judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the second most important court in the country.
Collins touted Jackson’s “impressive academic and legal credentials” following the announcement. But Graham, who had expressed support for Childs, suggested Jackson does not have his approval, saying in a tweet that the choice of Jackson “means the radical Left has won President Biden over yet again.” Graham added that he expects a “respectful but interesting hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called for a “rigorous, exhaustive” review of Jackson in a statement.
“I also understand Judge Jackson was “impressive academic and legal credentials the favored choice of far-left dark-money groups that have spent years attacking the legitimacy and structure of the Court itself,” McConnell said.
This story has been updated with additional developments, reaction and background information.
CNN’s Eva McKend, John Harwood and Manu Raju contributed to this report.