Ketanji Brown Jackson makes history as first Black woman Supreme Court Justice

Ketanji Brown Jackson has made history, becoming the first Black woman Supreme Court Justice in the country’s history, after winning a vote in the Senate 53 to 47.

The liberal appeals court judge, was confirmed to the supreme court on Thursday, overcoming a hostile Senate approval process and earning bipartisan approval to become the first Black woman to serve as a justice on the high court in its more than 200-year history.

After weeks of private meetings and days of public testimony, marked by intense sparring over judicial philosophy and personal reflections on race in America, Jackson earned a narrow – but notable – bipartisan support to become the 116th justice of the supreme court.

Republicans, senators Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, defied deep opposition within their party to support Joe Biden’s nominee. Their support was a welcome result for the White House, which had been intent on securing a bipartisan confirmation.

Jackson, who currently serves on the US court of appeals for the DC circuit, will replace Stephen Breyer, 83, the most senior member of the court’s liberal bloc. Breyer, for whom Jackson clerked early in her legal career, said he intends to retire from the court this summer.

Vice President Kamala Harris presided over the Senate vote, calling the final vote on Jackson’s nomination with a smile on her face, and the chamber broke into loud applause when the judge was confirmed.

“Today, we are taking a giant, bold and important step on the well-trodden path to fulfilling our country’s founding promises,” Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said just before the final vote. “This is a great moment for Judge Jackson. But it is an even greater moment for America as we rise to a more perfect union.”

The White House has announced that Biden, Harris and Jackson will deliver remarks on Friday to celebrate the confirmation. Jackson and Biden watched the final Senate vote together in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Biden shared a photo taken with Jackson at the White House, saying on Twitter: “Judge Jackson’s confirmation was a historic moment for our nation. We’ve taken another step toward making our highest court reflect the diversity of America. She will be an incredible justice, and I was honoured to share this moment with her.”

Her confirmation to the lifetime post represents the fulfilment of a promise Biden made to his supporters during his 2020 campaign for president, when he vowed to nominate the first Black woman to the supreme court, if elected president and a vacancy arose. The opportunity presented itself earlier this year, at another low point for Biden, with momentous domestic and foreign challenges weighing on his presidency.

During the public hearings, Jackson vowed to be an independent justice who would seek to ensure that the words inscribed on the marbled supreme court building – Equal Justice Under the Law – were a “reality and not just an ideal”.

With her parents and daughters present, Jackson recounted for the Senate judiciary committee her family’s generational journey, as the daughter of public school teachers raised in the segregated south who would rise to become a justice on a court that once denied Black Americans citizenship.

With an eye on the November midterm elections, Republicans led an aggressive campaign against the judge during her confirmation hearings and in conservative media, raising questions about her record in an effort to paint her as an “activist judge” who is soft on crime. They used the confirmation proceedings to air conservative grievances about past supreme court nominations and to wage culture war battles over critical race theory, crime and transgender women in sports.

However, Democrats, and the handful of Republicans who supported her, praised her qualifications and demeanour, and in particular the restraint she showed during some stinging exchanges with conservative senators. They sought to defend her record, noting that her sentencing record was within the mainstream of the federal judiciary, while emphasising the support she had earned from within the legal community, including among conservative justices, and her endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police, which cited her family’s law enforcement background.

A graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School, Jackson served on the independent US sentencing commission, an agency that develops sentencing guidelines, before becoming a federal judge.

While she shares an elite background with the other justices, her work as a public defender has been recognised and praised. The last justice with experience representing criminal defendants was Thurgood Marshall, the towering civil rights lawyer who became the first Black member of the supreme court.

The final Senate vote on her confirmation was among the closest in supreme court history.