Dabbing tears from her face on the South Lawn of the White House, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson spoke of her personal journey to the steps of the Supreme Court, and how it dovetailed with the hopes and history of people she had come to symbolize.
A day after the Senate confirmed Jackson 53 to 47, the White House hosted a presidential-level victory lap, featuring tear-filled speeches from President Biden and two of the women he has held up as proof that his presidency is making America more equitable: Jackson and Vice President Harris.
It was a history-making moment for Jackson, but also for Biden, who served as vice president to the first Black President, selected the first Black woman to be named vice president, and is now linked to another groundbreaking first.
“This is going to let so much sun shine on so many young women, so many young Black women, so many minorities,” said Biden, who told the crowd that nominating a Black woman to the Supreme Court was one of the first decisions he made when he decided to seek the presidency a third time. “Today is a good day, a day that history is going to remember. And in the years to come, they’re going to be proud of what we did.”
Harris, who spoke just before Biden and presided over Jackson’s Senate confirmation vote a day earlier, said she “will inspire generations of leaders. They will watch your confirmation hearings and read your decisions in the years to come.”
The vice president told the crowd she penned a letter to her goddaughter as she sat in the Senate chamber before the vote. “Her braids are just a little longer than yours,” Harris told Jackson. “But as I wrote to her, I told her what I knew this would mean for her life and all that she has in terms of potential.”
All three touched on the personal and historic significance of the confirmation. But for an outdoor audience that featured nearly three dozen Democratic legislators, there was also political import.
Within hours of the event, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced it had purchased digital ads in local Black media outlets in five battleground states — Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where increased Black turnout would benefit Democrats.
Two years after winning control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the Democratic Party faces a tough road in this year’s midterms. Approval ratings for Biden have plummeted and large parts of the Democrats’ agenda have stalled, including issues important to Black voters like police reform and voting rights.
Jackson’s ascension gives Democrats a clear sign of racial progress to tout. And the DSCC’s ads are a prelude to what’s expected to be a months-long effort by Democrats to use Jackson’s confirmation to their electoral benefit. One digital ad features photos of Jackson and warns, “Senate Republicans tried to stop her. We must defend the Democratic Senate.”
At the same time, some Republicans contend that opposing her is what their supporters would want, and several potential presidential aspirants were particularly tough. At her hearing, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) suggested Jackson has gone easy on sex offenders. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) asked if she believes babies are racist, citing a book from a school where Jackson has served on the board. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), in a Senate floor speech, said Jackson might have defended Nazis.
From the South Lawn on Friday, Biden blasted some Republican senators for making the “most vile, baseless assertions and accusations.” In the moments after she was confirmed, as Democrats applauded, many Republican senators silently filed out of the chamber.
Biden also called out the three Republicans who voted to confirm Jackson — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Mitt Romney of Utah — crediting them for “setting aside partisanship and making a carefully considered judgment based on the judge’s character, qualifications, and independence.” He also quipped “I hope I don’t get them in trouble” with his across-the-aisle praise.
But mostly he credited Jackson for her calm under the pressure of questioning, saying it showed what Americans should expect from her tenure on the nation’s highest court.
“We all saw the kind of justice she’ll be: fair and impartial, thoughtful, careful, precise, brilliant, a brilliant legal mind with deep knowledge of the law and a judicial temperament, which is equally important,” Biden said. The attacks, he added, were familiar to “women and women of color who have had to run the gantlet in their own lives … you stood up for them as well. They know it — everybody out there, every woman out there.”
Still, 47 of the 50 Senate Republicans vote against Jackson, many citing objections to her “judicial philosophy.” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), for example, said in a statement that while “all Americans can be proud of her personal story,” he was concerned that Jackson would “use her position on the Supreme Court to legislate from the bench.”
Speaking on CNN, former senator Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama who helped Jackson navigate the confirmation process, dismissed such objections.
“I think it was a missed opportunity by a lot of people on that Senate floor yesterday … to be on the right side of history,” Jones said. “I think what you saw here was really a stretch by a number of folks to try to find something that they could hang their hat on to oppose this incredible, amazing jurist.”
Jackson, for her part, avoided politics on Friday. She thanked a long list of family members, friends, White House aides and senators. She restated her commitment to judicial independence, and thanked lawmakers for “substantive and engaging conversations about my approach to judging and about the role of judges in the constitutional system we all love.”
She also thanked the three jurists she had clerked for, including the one she will replace, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who will retire this summer at the end of the Supreme Court’s term.
“My clerkship with Justice Breyer, in particular, was an extraordinary gift and one for which I’ve only become more grateful with each passing year,” she said.
But her most powerful words, which brought applause and at times tears from those gathered on the South Lawn, were about her role at this moment in American history. She quoted American poet Maya Angelou, who wrote, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave,” and alluded to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court Justice.
“We have come a long way toward perfecting our union,” she said. “In my family, it took just one generation to go from segregation to the Supreme Court of the United States. And it is an honor — the honor of a lifetime — for me to have this chance to join the Court, to promote the rule of law at the highest level, and to do my part to carry our shared project of democracy and equal justice under law forward, into the future.”