The Senate made history on Thursday when it confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, handing President Biden a significant win.
Jackson’s ascension to the country’s highest court breaks multiple barriers: She will be the court’s first Black female justice and its first former public defender.
Senators voted 53-47 on Jackson’s confirmation. GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mitt Romney (Utah) bucked their party and voted to confirm her.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) touted Jackson’s nomination as a “joyous, momentous, groundbreaking day.”
“In the 233-year history of the Supreme Court, never — never — has a Black woman held the title of ‘justice.’ Ketanji Brown Jackson will be the first, and I believe the first of more to come,” Schumer said.
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), one of three Black lawmakers in the Senate, acknowledged his own daughters in a speech shortly before Thursday’s vote, saying “the historic nature of [Jackon’s] appointment isn’t lost on me.”
“I know what it has taken for Judge Jackson to get to this moment, and nobody is going to steal my joy,” he said.
Underscoring the historic nature of the vote, Vice President Harris — who was the first female, first Black and first Asian American person to hold the No. 2 office — presided over the chamber’s confirmation of Jackson.
“I’m overjoyed, deeply moved. You know, there’s so much about what’s happening in the world now that is presenting some of the worst of … human behaviors and then we have a moment like this that I think reminds us that there is still so much yet to accomplish and that we can accomplish, including a day like today that is so historic and so important, for so many reasons,” Harris told reporters as she was leaving the Capitol.
“I do believe it is a very important statement about who we are as a nation, that we have just made a decision to put this extraordinary jurist on the highest court of our land. It’s a good statement about who we are,” Harris added.
More than a dozen Congressional Black Caucus members walked across the Capitol to the Senate chamber to watch the vote, before holding a celebratory press conference just off the Senate floor.
Senators also largely stood at their desk to vote, underscoring the significance of the vote, compared to a normally chatty Senate floor. But some Republicans, including Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), were spotted voting from a door at the back of the chamber because they were too casually dressed.
The vote was held open for several minutes as senators waited for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to show up to vote, with many Republicans leaving rather than wait for him. Once Harris closed the vote on Jackson’s nomination, Democratic senators as well as Murkowski and Romney stood to give a standing ovation.
Jackson needs to be sworn in before she’s officially a justice on the Supreme Court. Justice Stephen Breyer, whom she is succeeding, has said he will step down over the summer, assuming his successor was in place.
But Thursday’s vote caps off a roughly 40-day sprint by the White House and Senate Democrats, who are eager to put their own stamp on the judiciary.
Jackson’s road to confirmation had a number of high-profile tense moments, including Republicans attacking her sentencing in certain child pornography cases, portraying her as soft on crime, questioning her work tied to the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and arguing that she would be a “judicial activist.”
“I see hallmarks of judicial activism in Judge Jackson’s record and will vote ‘no,’” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “We’re about to have a new Justice whose fan club has openly attacked the rule of law. So Judge Jackson will quickly face a fork in the road. One approach to her new job would delight the far left. A different approach would honor the separation of powers and the Constitution.”
Republicans held a final press conference shortly before the vote to make their case against Jackson.
“I believe she will prove to be the furthest left of any justice to have ever served on the Supreme Court, based on her record,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Many of those attacks were led by GOP senators viewed as having White House ambitions, like Cruz, and drew pushback from Murkowski and Romney, two of the three Republicans who voted for Jackson.
“I think there was a level of personal attack that was unwarranted,” Murkowski said shortly after she announced that she would support Jackson’s nomination.
Despite the fireworks, Jackson’s confirmation was never seriously in doubt, as Democrats could confirm her without any GOP help if all 50 of their members remained united.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced on March 25 that he would back Jackson, putting her on a glide path. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) made her support official on Thursday shortly before the vote, though Jackson already had the votes to be confirmed.
But top Democrats and the White House were eager to pick up GOP support.
Though Supreme Court confirmations were once routine affairs, they’ve grown increasingly contentious in recent decades.
Republicans nixed the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees in 2017, following a move by Democrats to get rid of the same hurdle for lower-court nominees in 2013. Only three Democratic senators voted for Neil Gorsuch in 2017, who was nominated to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia after Republicans refused to give Merrick Garland, President Obama’s final nominee, a hearing or a vote in 2016.
Manchin was the only Democratic senator who voted to support Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 nomination after Kavanaugh faced sexual assault allegations, which he denied. No Democratic senator voted for Amy Coney Barrett, whose confirmation came days before the 2020 elections.
To try to win over Republicans, Biden reached out to some GOP senators directly, including Murkowski and Collins.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told The Hill that he had reached out to 10 Republican senators to try to win their support.
“I talked to 10 people and all of them were pleasant … and only one told me she was going to vote ‘yes,’ so I had my fingers crossed,” Durbin said.
Three GOP senators voted for Jackson last year for her appeals court seat: Collins, Murkowski and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). But Graham was widely viewed to be a “no” after he pushed hard for another nominee and used Jackson’s four-day hearing to vent Republican grievances over the treatment of past nominees, as well as to criticize Jackson’s sentencing and her work related to Guantánamo Bay detainees.
While Collins announced her decision last week, Romney and Murkowski announced their support just minutes before they cast an initial vote to advance Jackson’s nomination. Murkowski is the only one of the three that is up for reelection in 2022, where she faces a challenger backed by former President Trump.
Collins said that she had spoken with both Romney and Murkowski about Jackson’s nomination before they made an announcement.
“I obviously am delighted that they reached a very similar conclusion to mine in terms of the rationale and that the judge will be confirmed on a bipartisan vote,” Collins said. “I think that’s important. It used to be that that was very common when it came to a Supreme Court justice.”