Court Battles

Jackson could be galvanizing force on Supreme Court, legal experts say

Ketanji Brown Jackson made history Friday by becoming the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court and, if confirmed, would bring youth and likely a more progressive outlook to the court’s liberal minority. 

Although Jackson’s addition won’t fundamentally change the ideological balance on the 6-3 conservative-majority court, her unique voice and background, including her service as a public defender, would make her an inspiring and forceful presence on the bench, court watchers say. 

“She won’t be able to stem the conservative legal movement’s efforts to remake the Constitution given the dwindling numbers of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court,” said Robert Tsai, a law professor at Boston University. 

“But the hope is that KBJ’s opinions, even though they might be on the losing side of important matters, will help galvanize the demand for a vision of the Constitution that permits good government and protects cherished rights,” he said.

President Biden nominated Jackson, a federal appeals judge in Washington, D.C., in a Friday afternoon announcement at the White House. Jackson is expected to be confirmed after what is likely to be a polarized and divisive Supreme Court confirmation process in the 50-50 Senate, replacing Justice Stephen Breyer, who will step down this summer.

For Jackson, her nomination culminates a meteoric rise through the federal judiciary following eight months on the D.C. Circuit after spending eight years as a federal district judge in D.C. 

Progressives touted other items on her resume, including her tenure as the vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission during Barack Obama’s presidency and the two years she spent as a federal public defender in D.C.

“By nominating the first-ever public defender to the Supreme Court, President Biden will cement his legacy as the modern president most committed to elevating lawyers who have represented the poor and the powerless,” said Brian Fallon, executive director of the progressive court reform advocacy group Demand Justice.

Vida Johnson, a law professor at Georgetown University who spent eight years as a D.C. public defender, hailed Jackson’s selection as “absolutely historic.”

“As a former public defender and as a Black woman, I imagine she will bring a unique perspective recognizing the many ways that Black people, other people of color, and particularly Black women have been subordinated in our country,” Johnson said. “I hope that Black girls and young women will see themselves represented on this incredibly important institution.”

Jackson, a former Breyer clerk, is expected to round out the court’s liberal wing, which also includes Sonia Sotomayor, 67, and Elena Kagan, 61. At 51, Jackson would also bring youth, diversity and likely a more liberal approach than the 83-year-old Breyer, known for his judicial modesty and pragmatism.

The court’s conservative supermajority status means liberal justices are often relegated to the dissenting minority on hot-button issues, from disputes over abortion restrictions and religious liberty to voting rights. But some court watchers said Jackson’s presence could make the court’s liberal wing more formidable. 

“Ketanji Brown Jackson’s addition will mean that all three of the Democratic appointees on the court are women, and two are women of color,” said Leah Litman, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “That means it will often be a group of three women pushing back against the radical and aggressive agenda of the six conservatives — a powerful symbol for the country.”

Tags Barack Obama Biden nominees biden picks Biden Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan Joe Biden Ketanji Brown Jackson Sonia Sotomayor Stephen Breyer Supreme Court nomination Supreme Court nominations
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