The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jackson’s nomination is historic, but her impact on Supreme Court in short term likely will be minimal

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden's nominee to the Supreme Court, speaks at the White House on Friday. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court moved it considerably to the right. The addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett gave conservatives a supermajority they had long dreamed about.

But if Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is confirmed by the Senate to replace the soon-to-retire Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the short-term impact on the controversial cases that command much of the public’s attention will likely be minimal. There will still be only three liberals on the court, specializing in writing dissents.

President Biden described Jackson as a “consensus-builder” when he introduced her at Friday’s White House event. But the court’s right flank is moving fast and not particularly looking for compromise, as even Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., himself a conservative, can testify.

Biden nominates Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court

Roberts found himself alone with the liberals as the majority allowed a restrictive Texas abortion law to take effect even though its constitutionality is suspect. He was on the losing side as the same group of five reinstated an Alabama congressional map that a lower court had said was so unfair to Black voters it violated the Voting Rights Act.

Breyer over the long run has been the most pragmatic and compromising of the court’s liberals, and he has often found himself frustrated in the attempt to find common ground.

Profile: How Ketanji Brown Jackson found a path between confrontation and compromise

And there is more to come. The court is currently considering a Mississippi abortion case in which the state is asking to get rid of Roe v. Wade’s guarantee of abortion rights. It appears likely to overturn a New York gun-control law. The ability of parents to use public funds to pay for religious school tuition for their children is on the agenda. On Monday, the court will hear a major environmental case that could limit the ability of federal agencies to impose broad regulations in addressing the nation’s problems.

Breyer, who has made his retirement effective at the end of the court’s current term and contingent on his successor being confirmed, is dealing with those.

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Jackson would debut in a new term next fall that already features the next round in the Alabama voting rights showdown; where to draw the line between religious beliefs and anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people; and whether universities may continue to consider race as one factor in building their student bodies.

It is a safe assumption the court’s liberals did not want to take up those cases. The two remaining justices on the left, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, have become specialists at dissent. Sotomayor has taken the lead on the Texas abortion law, Kagan has become the master of brittle protests about voting laws.

But anyone whose job includes a lifetime appointment is looking to the distant horizon.

There was unprecedented pressure on the 83-year-old Breyer to retire now, with a Democrat in the White House and the thinnest control of the Senate. His reinforcement is 30 years younger, with decades of service ahead.

As the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, Jackson would likely draw attention and have an immediate public platform in a way Breyer never achieved. He labored in the shadow of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed one year before him.

And there are plenty of examples of how a justice can be influential, in time, whether or not he or she is on the winning side. Justice Antonin Scalia said he pitched his sharply worded dissents to law students, hoping they would take seed in a new generation of lawyers.

Ginsburg became a late-in-life heroine — the Notorious RBG — drawing crowds of liberal women and men wherever she went. Sotomayor has used the attention she receives as the Supreme Court’s first Latina to write children’s books and stress her success after humble beginnings as a message of hope.

Justice Clarence Thomas’s unique view of the law and Constitution used to be a singular pursuit. But 30 years later, he’s now on a court with like-minded colleagues.

Jackson brings legal experiences other justices lack. She would be the first public defender on the court, and brings more criminal law experience than probably any justice since Thurgood Marshall. Like Sotomayor — but none of the others — she has been both a district court and an appellate judge.

At her confirmation hearing for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, she deflected questions about whether her race made her see the law differently.

But all justices bring their pasts to the table. After Marshall died, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the court’s first woman, wrote an appreciation of the civil rights leader, who was the court’s first African American.

“At oral arguments and conference meetings, Justice Marshall imparted not only his legal acumen, but his life experiences, constantly pushing and prodding us to respond not only to the persuasiveness of legal argument, but also to the power of moral truth,” she wrote.

Ketanji Brown Jackson

The latest: Ketanji Brown Jackson will be sworn in as the Supreme Court’s first Black female justice at noon Eastern time on June 30, just minutes after her mentor Justice Stephen G. Breyer makes his retirement official. It is the first time the Supreme Court will have four female justices among its nine members.

The votes: The Senate voted 53-to-47 to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, with three Republican senators joining every Democratic and independent senator. Here’s how each senator voted on Jackson’s nomination.

The nominee: The president named Ketanji Brown Jackson, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, as his first Supreme Court nominee. She is set be the first Black woman justice in the court’s history.

What it means: The Democrats will succeed in their efforts to replace the oldest of three liberal justices on and further diversify the Supreme Court ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

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