The historic yet tumultuous confirmation of KBJ

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation highlights systemic flaws in confirmation process

Ketanji Brown Jackson (KBJ) was recently nominated by President Joe Biden to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). This comes after Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement earlier this year. Despite her many achievements, there has been criticism surrounding KBJ’s ability to be an effective, unbiased justice as a woman of color, and yet her personal identity as a Black American woman is something at both the heart of the nomination and her perspective as a judge.

Despite intense opposition to her nomination and ever-present political tension, KBJ was officially confirmed on April 7 as first the Black woman U.S. Supreme Court Justice by a Senate vote of 53-47. Her addition to the Court will be a welcome one for her unique and personal experiences driven by her identity.

Before KBJ can be confirmed as a new Supreme Court Justice, there must first be confirmation hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee to establish the nominee as a qualified and suitable candidate. However, the history of confirmation hearings is a controversial one. Before 1916, nominating a Supreme Court Justice simply required a majority vote in the Senate. When Woodrow Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis, however, the confirmation process quickly changed to include hearings for and about nominees. This was in response to Brandeis being the first Jewish nominee in American history, and his confirmation process was rife with anti-Semitism. It’s not entirely clear if Brandeis’ religious or ethnic identity was the main reason behind introducing confirmation hearings, but the hesitancy to swear in a Jewish judge appeared again in 1939 with the nomination of Felix Frankfurter. It should be noted that both Brandeis and Frankfurter were controversial for other qualities, but this doesn’t change the fact that the use of confirmation hearings began with discrimination of a nominee’s personal identity.

In addition to the confirmation system being built around misconceptions or prejudice regarding racial stereotypes, KBJ is also subjected to the pressures of conformity as a Black woman. The unfair characterization of Black women as “angry” or “defiant” is especially familiar for Black public figures. Both Vice President Kamala Harris and former First Lady Michelle Obama, to name a couple, have been labeled as such. Being aware of this label, KBJ navigated her confirmation hearings with composure and was careful not to react too strongly to the prods of senators. Senator Josh Hawley took his question time to address an ‘Alarming Pattern’ of Sentencing Leniency for Sex Criminals using cherry-picked case data. Based on the whole picture, there is no evidence that KBJ was lenient on such offenders, and in fact points to a more troubling pattern about the line of questioning of the Republican senator. This illustrates the double standards present for KBJ as she moves through this process.

Reactions like those of Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings in 2018 would surely be deemed unacceptable by a Black woman, given the aforementioned stereotypes. Kavanaugh’s nomination process was heavily impacted by allegations of sexual misconduct by Christine Blasey Ford, a high school classmate of his. When asked about the allegations during a hearing, Kavanaugh’s behavior quickly escalated into angered outbursts as he tried to defend himself against what he called a “smear campaign” organized by those opposing his confirmation. Even with his lack of professionalism in his responses, he was still confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Unlike KBJ’s numerous upper-class, white, male predecessors, she has had to suppress parts of her personal identity in order to appeal to both the foundation upon which the confirmation process was built and to the conservative senators overseeing her appointment. Throughout her hearings, KBJ has endured the scrutiny of numerous senators without the option to react like Kavanaugh and previous nominees. Nonetheless, even as she’s being depicted as a martyr of critical race theory by Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, KBJ has remained composed and vigilant of how her opponents are perceiving her, in avoidance of this label. Many senators have seemingly cemented the idea that KBJ is too much of an “activist” to be an efficient judge because of her personal identity and her past rulings. John Cornyn, along with other Republican senators, seems to believe that a Justice’s personal political beliefs will dictate their rulings on important issues. To that, we ask why these senators weren’t concerned about such bias with their own nominees in the past administration.

On his presidential campaign trail, Biden said, “I’d be honored […] to appoint the first African American woman to the court because it should look like the country.” On that note, it seems apparent that the Court should be composed of individuals that best represent the citizens of this country. For almost two centuries, the highest court on the land was composed of white, straight males, mainly of the Christian faith, not to mention from elite, wealthy backgrounds. Under ideal conditions, any group of unbiased judges would be able to make decisions for the good of every citizen. Nonetheless, history has shown with decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott v. Stanford that the courts are incapable of ridding themselves of such biases. Therefore, if it is not possible to have an unbiased court, it is necessary to diversify the ethnic, racial, gender, religious and socioeconomic perspectives reflected by the Court. KBJ’s nomination provides the Court with an abundance of qualifications and expanded perspectives stemming from her outlook as a Black woman.

KBJ’s historic confirmation makes her the first public defender, third Black person and sixth woman ever to serve on the SCOTUS. Her addition to the Court will maintain the balance of conservative-to-liberal justices at six to three. When Justice Breyer officially retires at the end of the Court’s annual term this summer, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be sworn in as a Justice.