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Senate confirms D.C. Circuit nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson to replace Merrick Garland

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on Monday to the influential federal appeals court in Washington, elevating a trial court judge who is considered a contender for a potential opening on the Supreme Court.

Three Republicans joined Democrats in approving Jackson’s nomination in a 53-to-44 vote.

Jackson, 50, was nominated in March as part of Biden’s first slate of judicial picks from diverse personal and professional backgrounds. She fills the vacancy left on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who served on the bench for 24 years.

A former law clerk to Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Jackson is often mentioned as someone who could fulfill President Biden’s pledge to put the first Black woman on the high court.

Ahead of Monday’s vote, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted that women, especially women of color, have long been underrepresented on the federal bench and said Democrats are “working quickly to close the gap.” He called Jackson an “outstanding, trailblazing nominee” with “all the qualities of a model jurist.”

Jackson’s confirmation was expected. She received support Monday from Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who all voted to advance her nomination in a procedural vote last week.

The Biden administration is trying to quickly put its imprint on the federal judiciary and take advantage of the Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate. Democrats are playing catch-up to President Donald Trump, who moved quickly to install more than 200 judges — including three Supreme Court justices — in four years.

Biden moves quickly to make his mark on federal courts after Trump’s record judicial nominations

Many Democrats are hoping Breyer, the court’s oldest justice, will retire and create an opening for a younger liberal jurist while the party retains its majority.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) added to the time pressure Monday, refusing in an interview to commit to allowing a vote for a potential Biden nominee to the Supreme Court in 2023 if Republicans regain control of the Senate.

In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, McConnell also said it is “highly unlikely” that a Republican-controlled Senate would act on a Biden pick for the high court if a vacancy arose during the next presidential election in 2024.

McConnell famously blocked Garland, who was President Barack Obama’s nominee in 2016, but then pushed through the nomination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg even as voting in the presidential election had begun.

“In the middle of a presidential election, if you have a Senate of the opposite party of the president, you have to go back to the 1880s to find the last time a vacancy was filled. So I think it’s highly unlikely,” McConnell told Hewitt, according to an interview transcript.

While Jackson was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2013 to serve on the District Court, the stakes are significantly higher for the D.C. Circuit that has often been a steppingstone to the Supreme Court.

After graduating from Harvard University and its law school, Jackson was a law clerk to three judges, including Breyer. Before her nomination to the District Court, she worked as a federal public defender in Washington and served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, where she helped ensure that a reduction in penalties for drug-related offenses applied retroactively.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) praised Jackson’s record and her work on sentencing policy.

“Judge Jackson has grappled with the legal, intellectual and moral challenges that come with sentencing policy and decisions,” Durbin said on the Senate floor before the vote.

During her eight years on the trial court bench, Jackson has handled a wide range of cases and issued multiple rulings against the Trump administration.

She ordered Trump’s former White House counsel Donald McGahn to comply with a House subpoena, declaring “presidents are not kings.” The case twice reached the appeals court before it was settled by the Biden administration and House Democrats, in an agreement that led to McGahn’s belated closed-door testimony last week about the Russia investigation.

Jackson also issued a nationwide preliminary injunction that blocked the Trump administration from dramatically expanding its power to deport migrants who illegally entered the United States by using a fast-track process.

At her confirmation hearing, Jackson defended her independence in response to questions from Republicans about those rulings.

“It doesn’t make a difference whether or not the argument is coming from a death row inmate or the president of the United States,” she said. “I’m not injecting my personal views.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.