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Ketanji Brown Jackson and a marathon of hope

The first Black woman on the Supreme Court doesn’t change everything. But her ascent reminds us what is possible.

President Biden congratulates Ketanji Brown Jackson moments after the U.S. Senate confirmed her to be the first Black woman to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

The first Black woman has been confirmed to the Supreme Court. Justice-designate Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed grudgingly, miraculously, deservedly. Nonetheless, she was confirmed. And citizens cheered.

Ketanji Brown Jackson shatters stereotypes while making history

When the final vote was tallied, Jackson’s historic elevation had just a wisp of bipartisanship at 53 to 47. Yet in these deeply divided times, that tiny flicker of commonality was momentous. When the voting began, it looked like senators were going to make quick work of the task at hand, one that has been more than 200 years in the making. One after another, the Democrats and independents rose to announce their formal “Aye,” with the particular exception of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) who practically leaped to his feet to shout a boisterous “Yes!” into the record. The Republicans voted “No,” with three exceptions. Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski chose to support the nominee. And so did Utah’s Mitt Romney. He’d deliberated over his decision and announced it in advance on social media, and in doing so brought a bit of old-fashioned civility to these volatile times by offering an explanation for his thinking that was sprinkled with words such as “honor,” “integrity” and “service.”

The vote moved along briskly. It seemed that this monumental feat would be concluded in a mere eight minutes and the country — at least some corners of the country — could finally exhale and release all the pent-up hope and frustration and expectation that it has fed off and tamped down over generations. But the vote didn’t wrap up quickly, because rocky paths hardly ever suddenly turn smooth.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was not there. He was most assuredly going to be a no, so the final result wasn’t in doubt. But that wasn’t the point. He was a formality. A completion of the record. A sign that the full voice of the Senate had spoken, on what had become a historic Thursday afternoon. So Vice President Harris, who also serves as president of the Senate, didn’t read off the vote as it stood. The microphones went silent. And time expanded, so that 15 minutes felt like an hour. It felt like the cold hand of stubborn history would just not loosen its grip on the country.

Finally, Paul appeared. He voted no. Jackson was confirmed. And hope breathed out.

“On this vote, the yeas are 53; the nays are 47. And this nomination is confirmed,” Harris said. And then she smiled. Those in the room stood. Jackson’s supporters offered rousing and sustained applause. Others simply collected themselves and walked out. As so many of his Republican colleagues departed, Romney — the man who had spoken of honor and integrity — was left standing and applauding surrounded by empty chairs on his side of the aisle. Romney didn’t budge as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) left. He didn’t move as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) buttoned his suit jacket and exited. Romney stayed and marked history. He gave extended attention to what his vote had meant in this nation’s trajectory and perhaps he considered what all those “no” votes had meant, too.

History unfolds with glory, insults, comfort and patience

Jackson’s confirmation draws attention to so many shifts, so many recalibrations about institutional power. When she takes her place on the bench, White men will, for the first time, not be the majority on the Supreme Court. Women will have near parity. Jackson’s confirmation doesn’t transform everything. But it reminds us of what is possible. It tells us that this country still has the capacity to lean in toward the light despite all the daunting concerns and existential questions about the state of this democracy. Progress is possible. The challenge has always been whether we can sustain it. Can we build on it instead of trying to chip it away?

Is backlash inevitable? Perhaps. Maybe intractable partisanship will ultimately do us all in. But with Jackson’s confirmation, possibility once again whispers in our ears. The vote was presided over by Harris, don’t forget. Her presence was another kind of history — another murmur of progress.

Before the vote began, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, talked about the slow slog toward this moment, not just during the hearings when Republican colleagues such as Cruz and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) used much of their time to shout aspersions at Jackson and overtalk her with their sanctimony, but through centuries of oppression and discrimination. Durbin reminded his audience that they worked in a building that Black women once only entered to clean, a place that the labor of enslaved people built. Now, finally, a Black woman will sit in a place of honor, influence and judgment.

Jackson won’t take her place on the court until after Justice Stephen G. Breyer retires in June. The country will have to wait before it sees that resounding image of her being sworn in. No matter. But Jackson’s rise to the court has been slow and methodical. She gathered decades of experience in law and on the bench. She endured hours of questions during her confirmation hearing and she listened to hours of grandstanding. And even during the final vote, she had to wait just a few extra minutes for a wayward Paul. Jackson has been engaged in a marathon.

It’s tempting to describe her elevation to the court like a thunderclap, something sudden and jolting. But really, it was more of an inevitability.

As her supporters have noted, her career path has long been leading to this place. That she arrived is a testament to: this democracy, our better angels, stubborn optimism, dogged determination and work. But she also benefited from the prayers of millions of women who held their breath and dared not even whisper their deepest hopes.