In 1967, Thurgood Marshall became the first Black Supreme Court Justice. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman Supreme Court Justice. Now, Ketanji Brown Jackson is poised to become the first Black woman to sit on the highest court in the land.
President Joe Biden has selected the D.C. Circuit Judge to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, the White House confirmed Friday morning. Jackson, 51, had been rumored to be the President’s top choice since she was confirmed to the the D.C. Circuit last year by a vote of 53-44, with three Republican senators voting in her favor.
Jackson would bring a variety of professional experiences currently lacking from the Supreme Court, having not built a career as a prosecutor or corporate lawyer. She served as a federal public defender from 2005 to 2007, and would be the first Justice since Marshall who represented indigent criminal defendants. From 2010 to 2014, Jackson served as vice chair of the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission, a period during which the commission reassessed the 100-to-1 crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity.
In recent weeks, Biden had whittled his list down to just a few names, including South Carolina District Judge J. Michelle Childs and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger. His team ran detailed background checks on all three finalists.
After Biden officially announces his choice, the process moves over to Congress. Former Democratic Alabama Sen. Doug Jones has been tasked by the White House to be Jackson’s “sherpa,” meaning he’ll work to help her navigate the Hill in what can be a deeply contentious process. Jones will help Jackson arrange meetings with Senators from both sides of the aisle to try and garner their support ahead of the final confirmation vote. Such meetings have been pivotal in past nomination processes, one Democratic Judiciary Committee aide says.
Jackson will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois, where she’ll face days of questioning about her career, past rulings and judicial philosophy. Nearly every member of Durbin’s Judiciary Committee nominations team has worked on a Supreme Court nomination in the past. Now that they have the name of the President’s pick, they’ll begin poring over her case records, publications, public statements and rulings—and will give that information to other committee Democrats so they can begin evaluating her record and writing their questions. Supreme Court nominees must submit a questionnaire on their career history as part of the hearing, which historically has been tailored to each nominee and agreed upon by both Republican and Democrats on the committee, according to a Republican Senate Judiciary Committee aide.
Democratic Judiciary Committee aides tell TIME they’ve been preparing for this moment for weeks, mindful that the speed at which they can move a nominee through the process hinges on whether she’s come before the committee before. Since Jackson went before the Committee just a year earlier—and confirmed with little drama—they expect the process will be swifter than if she was new to the Judiciary Committee.
While a source close to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told CNN last month that Schumer hopes for a timeline similar to the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett—who was confirmed in less than five weeks in the fall of 2020—Democratic Judiciary Committee aides say that “the chair sets the timeline.” Aides say Durbin will ensure Senators on the committee will have the opportunity to speak with the nominee, review her record and “question her thoroughly about that record.” Taylor Foy, the communications director for the committee’s ranking member Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, says he’d expect a timeline closer to 45 days.
Jackson does not need the support of any Republicans on the committee to advance to the Senate floor for a vote to confirm her to the Supreme Court. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican on the committee, voted to confirm Jackson to the D.C. Circuit just last year, although he’d publicly backed South Carolina District Judge Childs for the Supreme Court spot since Breyer announced his retirement. Graham told reporters on Feb. 2 that Childs is “somebody I could see myself supporting.” He warned that if Biden’s pick isn’t Childs, it could be “much more problematic.”
Once her nomination is processed by the committee, Jackson needs just 51 Senate votes to be confirmed. (Supreme Court nominees used to require the support of 60 Senators, but in 2017 the Republican-controlled Senate created a filibuster carve out for Supreme Court nominations to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch.) Democrats want to move quickly to get Jackson to the final vote. If a Democratic Senator retires, falls ill or passes away, they could lose their fragile 50-50 majority in the Senate—the stakes of which were highlighted earlier this month after New Mexico Democrat Sen. Ben Ray Luján suffered a stroke and underwent decompressive surgery to ease swelling in his brain. (In mid-February, Luján reported he would be back on the floor of the Senate “in just a few short weeks to vote on important legislation and to consider a Supreme Court nominee.” On Feb. 18, he tweeted that he was in inpatient care.)
While Democrats do not need Republican support to confirm Biden’s nominee, Senate Democratic aides say that Durbin has preemptively reached out to Republican colleagues to discuss the confirmation process, including Sens. Grassley, Graham and Susan Collins of Maine. They say Durbin is also leaning on his close relationship with Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and has close relationships with Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Todd Young of Indiana, and Jerry Moran of Kansas that may help ensure the process runs smoothly.
While Jackson could win an historic confirmation in the coming weeks, she won’t change the ideological balance of the court. There are six conservative Justices on the Supreme Court and three liberal Justices, and her confirmation wouldn’t change that makeup.
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