Today, we witnessed a historical moment: The Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. She will be the first Black woman to hold this position in the history of the United States. She will also be the first justice to have served as a public defender.
President Biden officially nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve as a Supreme Court Justice, in keeping with his 2020 campaign promise to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court if given the chance. When the vacancy was announced, many groups campaigned to make sure that the Biden Administration would deliver on this promise and throw his full support behind his choice.
When the confirmation hearings began, the world watched as Senators berated the Judge with irrational and misogynistic lines of questioning, and many others gathered outside the Capitol to demand a just process.
Below we share the gatekeeping history of Supreme Court nominations, and why this position is so important.
How Did We Get Here?
For most of its early history, Supreme Court nominees were confirmed within one day of their nomication. In modern times, contentious Supreme Court confirmations really took shape in the late 1960s, in line with the Civil Rights era. However, the first in a trend of lengthy nomination processes happened decades before.
It started with the appointment of Louis D. Brandeis in 1916. This was the first time the Senate Judiciary Committee held public hearings for a nominee, where they allowed for witnesses to argue for and against a candidate.
The hearing still holds the record of the longest confirmation process, taking four months to confirm Brandieis. Why was the Senate so hesitant to confirm Brandeis? He was the first Jewish nominee, considered even more controversial because of his legal activism in support of workers’ rights and social reform.
As the face of America continued to diversify, the all-male, predominantly Protestant Christian Senate felt wary of granting the power of a Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) justice to any minority, even another white male.
What Power Does a SCOTUS Justice Hold?
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the country, and can review all cases and controversies under the Constitution or the US laws. Like all federal judges, justices who serve on the Supreme court are appointed by the President and must be confirmed by the Senate.
The position of justice is important because SCOTUS has the final say when it comes to the law. They have the power to make decisions that impact our everyday lives, from who we can marry to how we can organize to what decisions we can or cannot make about our own bodies. Importantly, justices receive a lifetime appointment, meaning that typically a justice has the power to impact the court, and the country, for many decades.
For too long, the Supreme Court confirmation process has been used as a way to gatekeep, and has stopped the court from actually looking like the people they represent in this country. It wasn’t until 1967 that Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as the first Black justice, and until 1981 before Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed as the first female justice.
As many know, our courts aren’t working for all of us. They seem to benefit — because they often do — the wealthy and powerful and not all of us….For many, many, many presidential administrations, the calculus of who would be nominated for the Supreme Court unfortunately often excluded Black women and others.”Lena Zwarensteyn, Senior Director of the Fair Courts Program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
With today’s historic confirmation, we can see better representation in the highest court in the US. This is just one more opportunity for the courts to work for the everyday needs of the people, especially needed in this time when the rights of many are under attack.