History was made Monday, as the first Black woman ever nominated to the US supreme court testified to the Senate judiciary committee. But before Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson could speak at her confirmation hearing, she first had to listen to a lot of white men.
The Senate confirmation hearings for Jackson started Monday, giving the judge and every member of the judiciary committee the opportunity to deliver remarks about her nomination.
In her opening statement, Jackson took the opportunity to thank her parents, husband and two daughters, all of whom sat behind her in the hearing room as she delivered her remarks. Jackson recounted how her parents, two former public school teachers, had to endure lawful segregation in the years before her birth in 1970.
“My parents taught me that unlike the many barriers that they had had to face growing up, my path was clearer,” Jackson said. “So that if I worked hard and I believed in myself in America, I could do anything or be anything I wanted to be.”
Jackson delivered her moving opening statement about four and a half hours after the hearing began. All 22 members of the judiciary committee spoke before Jackson, alternating between praising her resume and raising questions about her past rulings. Jackson sat quietly for the first few hours of the hearing, occasionally smiling or taking notes about cases mentioned by the senators on the panel.
“You’re obviously a good listener because you’re doing a lot of listening here today,” Democrat Richard Blumenthal told Jackson.
Blumenthal joined other Democrats in praising Joe Biden’s nomination of Jackson, describing her selection as an “inflection pinnacle for our nation”.
“The appointment of a black woman to the United States supreme court, let’s be very blunt, should have happened years ago,” Blumenthal said. “This day is a giant leap into the present for our country and for the court.”
Many of the senators on the judiciary committee seemed to have an eye toward the history books as they addressed Jackson. Dick Durbin, the Democratic chairman of the panel, opened the hearing by noting that there were nearly 700,000 enslaved people living in the US when the supreme court first met in 1790. At the time, neither African Americans nor women had the right to vote.
“There was no equal justice under the law for a majority of people living in America,” Durbin said. In the more than 230 years since that first meeting, 108 of the 115 justices who have served on the court have been white men, Durbin pointed out.
“Your presence here today, your willingness to brave this process, will give inspiration to millions of Americans who see themselves in you,” Durbin told Jackson.
As Democrats celebrated Jackson’s nomination, Republicans went out of their way to argue that their reservations about the judge have nothing to do with her race or gender but rather her judicial record.
“I have said in the past that I think it’s good for the court to look like America. So count me in on the idea of making the court more diverse,” Republican Lindsey Graham said.
Graham attacked Democrats for trying to paint Republicans as racist, insisting he and his colleagues would not be scared out of asking Jackson tough questions. “We’re going to ask you what we think you need to be asked,” Graham said.
Even as senators focused on the historic nature of Jackson’s nomination, the hearing underscored how much progress still needs to be made to build a more representative government in America. White men make up about two-thirds of the Senate judiciary committee, and only one woman of color – Democrat Mazie Hirono of Hawaii – sits on the panel.
“For over 233 years, the individuals making decisions that have altered the course of this country have almost exclusively been white men,” Hirono said at the hearing.
Hirono criticized Republicans who have belittled Jackson’s selection as the result of affirmative action because of Biden’s campaign promise to nominate a Black woman to the supreme court.
“Let me be clear, your nomination is not about filling a quota; it is about time. It’s about time that we have a highly qualified, highly accomplished Black woman on the supreme court,” Hirono said. “It’s about time our highest court better reflects the country it serves.”
After listening to hours of remarks from senators about her barrier-breaking nomination, Jackson instead reflected on those who came before her to make her prestigious career possible. She specifically expressed gratitude for Constance Baker Motley, a civil rights activist who became the first Black woman to serve as a US federal judge.
“Like Judge Motley, I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the supreme court building – equal justice under law – are a reality and not just an ideal,” Jackson said. “Thank you for this historic chance to join the highest court, to work with brilliant colleagues, to inspire future generations and to ensure liberty and justice for all.”