The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

History unfolds with glory, insults, comfort and patience

Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), left, and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) greet Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
8 min

As Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson made her way through the marble-floored hallway, into the wood-paneled room in the Hart Senate Office Building and toward her seat at the witness table on the first day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, she was surrounded by a cadre of White men. They were there as professional guides, as antagonistic foils and, in the case of her husband, for personal support. They were a quick visual reminder of just how much the halls of power and the top rungs of success remain a place that they dominate. For more than 200 years, White men have ruled the Supreme Court. Of the 115 justices, 108 have been White men. This is the history that Jackson is helping to topple as the first Black woman nominated to serve as an associate justice. This is the history that’s being slowly laid to rest. Not just with her nomination and, perhaps, her confirmation, but with all of the glory, insult, comfort and patience that fill these proceedings.

Ketanji Brown Jackson shatters stereotypes while making history

When the White men parted, there was Jackson, who cuts a striking figure. She’s a diminutive presence in a sea of men who society deems giants. For the first of four days of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jackson wore bold purple — a visual exclamation point amid the droning discontent from so many of the gray suits on the committee. She sat with her hands lightly clasped in front of her. As she settled in for the long day, she opened a bottle of water but didn’t take a sip. She moved a travel mug from one side of the table to the other. They were the gestures of an orderly mind with no immediate task but to maintain a placid expression — one that is ultimately a testament to patience and forbearance.

Jackson’s bench of supporters spoke to the magnitude of this moment. Her parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, sat behind her to her right. Married almost 54 years, they came of age during segregation. Yet despite a government determined to constrain their ambition and advancement, they sallied forward to become a lawyer and educator, respectively. They believed in their abilities and those of their children and gave their daughter an African name to celebrate a heritage that their country derided. And now they were watching her make history and they were being thanked for their commitment to the American Dream that the country had done its level best to exclude them from.

Jackson’s husband and daughters sat behind her to her left. She met Patrick at Harvard, where they were both students. And while race has little bearing on matters of the heart, it was no negligible matter that in all the photographs taken for the history books, her husband is the White man in soft focus, the White man who is bolstering the ambitions of a Black woman. He is the great man behind the great woman who is charged with holding on to the purple folder containing her notes. Her background cheerleader wore teal socks emblazoned with portraits of the Founding Fathers.

Three of her college roommates came to support her, too. And one of them, Lisa Fairfax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, introduced her. These women were reminders of what should be obvious but bears emphasizing, which is that Jackson, despite her impressive résumé and admirable character, is not a unicorn. The field of exquisitely accomplished Black women is deep. It has always been deep.

Jackson kept her remarks brief. She promised to be a neutral judge. She promised to adhere to precedent. “Members of this committee, if I am confirmed, I commit to you that I will work productively to support and defend the Constitution and this grand experiment of American democracy that has endured over these past 246 years,” she said. “… During this hearing, I hope that you will see how much I love our country and the Constitution and the rights that make us free.”

And then she smiled before she went on to pay homage to Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to be appointed to the federal bench, more than 50 years ago. Jackson spent the greater part of Monday smiling while others spoke about her, around her and for her before she was able make her own brief personal introduction.

During the many hours as she sat and listened to Democrats drown her in praise and Republicans blame her for all their fear and discontent, her resting expression was quietly pleasant with occasional flashes of delight. She didn’t swoon when Democrats pointed out that not only did she clerk for Justice Stephen G. Breyer, she was also a high school debate champion and her brother, by heavens, always knew that she’d grow up to do great things. She looked flattered when Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announced that he would be using his time at the microphone to “talk about the joy” that he felt over her history-making nomination. And then he went on to “make a joyful noise” about the glass ceiling that was being shattered and quoted Martin Luther King Jr. about the trajectory of the moral universe getting a little bit closer to justice. But it was her husband who rubbed his face and dabbed at his eyes as the senator spoke.

She didn’t scowl, even when there was so much to scowl about. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) unleashed a storm of righteous indignation over the way in which the Brett Kavanaugh hearings became a referendum on his alleged sexual misconduct. He raged against left-wing activists who lobbied in favor of Jackson and against the nomination of J. Michelle Childs, a federal judge in South Carolina, and he wanted to know why, why, why were these dark liberal groups so infatuated with Jackson, which would seem to be a question for the activists rather than Jackson. And then Graham mused on how lucky Jackson was. In Graham’s estimation, this accomplished Black woman with a Harvard law degree who has had Fox News’s Tucker Carlson demand to see her LSAT scores, who’s had Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) characterize her nomination as reverse discrimination and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) worry that she’s an unqualified affirmative-action nominee, is lucky because she won’t have to put up with a circus of a confirmation hearing or attacks on her character as Kavanaugh did.

“You’re the beneficiary of a lot,” Graham said. And Jackson didn’t flinch.

(Black) lady justice

She didn’t scowl when Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), in explaining what he looks for in a Supreme Court justice, noted that it’s someone who makes decisions based on the law and “not on empathy,” which would seem to be championing a kind of heartless, inhumane justice that isn’t really justice at all. And she did not howl in dismay as Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) so distorted and misrepresented her record that she made the nominee falsely sound like a terrorist-loving, White-people-hating radical with a “hidden agenda” when, in fact, Jackson was a federal public defender who once referenced in a speech the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which examined slavery’s role in the founding of the country, and a believer in the efficacy of masks during the height of the pandemic.

“Let me close, again, by congratulating you on your impressive career and your nomination to the nation’s highest court,” Blackburn said after having called Jackson everything but a child of God. The nominee’s resting expression did not change.

In the next days, committee members will have an opportunity to ask questions. And Jackson will be able to respond. If the past is any guidance, there will be thoughtful questions and there will be a good deal of pontificating. But in their opening comments, most every senator promised to be respectful, to ask tough questions and to ostensibly be an honest broker. So, perhaps, these hearings will be historic in that way too.

Meanwhile, Jackson underscored her belief in being forthright and clear. “In preparing for these hearings, you may have read some of my more than 570 written decisions, and you may have also noticed that my opinions tend to be on the long side,” she said. “That is because I also believe in transparency, that people should know precisely what I think and the basis for my decision.”

And on this point, Jackson looked quite serious.