President Joe Biden on Friday celebrated the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to reach the Supreme Court, hailing “a moment of real change in American history.”
It was a moment 46 days — and more than two centuries — in the making. Jackson, who was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday, will take the bench later this year, filling the shoes of retiring Justice Stephen Breyer on a court that was made up entirely of white men for almost two centuries, that declared her race unworthy of citizenship and endorsed American segregation.
Jackson, at times speaking through tears as she thanked her family and mentors for their support, promised to follow in retiring Justice Breyer’s footsteps on the bench.
“I have done my level best to stay in my lane and to reach a result that is consistent with my understanding of the law,” she said, “And with the obligation to rule independently, without fear or favor.”
Jackson’s arrival on the bench won’t upend the current 6-3 conservative balance. But in addition to the racial history, it will put for the first time four women on the court at one time.
Biden nominated her on the second anniversary of his pledge ahead of the South Carolina presidential primary to select a Black woman for the court. The move helped resurrect his flailing campaign and preserved his pathway to the White House, and Biden said the promise of putting someone like Jackson on the court helped motivate his bid for the Oval Office.
“I could see it as a day of hope, a day of promise, a day of progress, a day when once again the moral arc of the universe — as Barack (Obama) used to quote all the time — bends a little more toward justice,” Biden said at a boisterous event on the South Lawn of the White House. “I believe so strongly that we needed a court that looks like America.”
Biden praised Jackson’s “incredible character and integrity” during the confirmation process, saying she put up with “verbal abuse, the anger, constant interruptions, the most vile baseless assertions and accusations.” He praised the three Republican senators who joined Democrats to back her for the court: Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.
Jackson will be the high court’s first former public defender — with the elite legal background of other justices as well. She has degrees from Harvard and Harvard Law School and held top clerkships, including for Breyer himself.
The crowd on the White House lawn included Jackson’s family, members of Biden’s Cabinet, some of the Democratic senators who backed her nomination, as well as Democratic representatives and allies. The White House said all current and former justices of the Supreme Court were invited, but none attended.
The event came amid a COVID-19 outbreak among Washington’s political class that has sidelined members of Biden’s administration and lawmakers, including Collins and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, who tested positive for the virus just hours after voting for Brown’s confirmation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was on the invite list, tested positive for the virus on Thursday.
Psaki on Thursday addressed concerns that the White House event could be a “super-spreader” for the virus, like President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden ceremony announcing the nomination of now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Psaki emphasized that the risks from the virus are now much lower because of vaccinations and treatments.
“At that point in time, vaccines were unavailable, people were not vaccinated, it certainly puts us in a different space,” Psaki said.
While not all attendees would be newly tested for the virus, Psaki said those close to Biden would be. Vice president Kamala Harris was to attend and deliver remarks, though she was identified on Wednesday as a close contact of a staffer who tested positive. Under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines she was expected to wear a mask while around other people.
On Thursday, Jackson had joined Biden at the White House to watch the Senate vote unfold on TV, the two of them clasping hands in the Roosevelt Room as her confirmation became reality.
As a longtime Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Biden had a front-row seat to some of the most contentious confirmation battles in the court’s history, as well as the hearings for Justice Stephen Breyer, whose retirement this summer is clearing the way for Jackson to join the bench.
“History doesn’t happen by accident — it’s made,” said White House chief of staff Ron Klain. He took note on MSNBC of the vote on Brown’s nomination being presided over in the Senate by Harris, the first Black vice president, also selected by Biden.
Throughout his 50 years in Washington, Biden has played an instrumental part in shaping the court, both inside and out of the Senate. But this was his first opportunity to make a selection of his own.
Biden may not get another chance. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an interview Thursday with Axios, refused to commit to hold confirmation hearings for a future Biden nominee to the high court if the GOP retakes control of the Senate in 2023.
Biden took part in confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 and Antonin Scalia in 1986, both nominated by President Ronald Reagan. He also participated in the 1986 hearing to elevate Justice William Rehnquist to the position of chief justice of the United States.
As committee chairman, he presided over the hearings for failed nominee Robert Bork, then the successful confirmations of Anthony M. Kennedy, David Souter, and Clarence Thomas — the last dominated by allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas by law professor Anita Hill — as well as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Breyer.
He was on the committee in 2005 but no longer chairman when now-Chief Justice John Roberts was confirmed, and in 2006 when Samuel Alito became a justice.
As vice president, Biden helped counsel President Barack Obama on his three Supreme Court picks: Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who were confirmed, and now-Attorney General Merrick Garland, whose nomination was blocked by the GOP ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Jackson won’t take office immediately. Breyer is to step down after the court concludes its current term, which is usually in late June or early July. Only then will she take the oath to become an associate justice. A White House official said Jackson will remain on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit until then but will continue to recuse herself from cases.