Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson becomes first African American woman confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice in the history of the United States
Imagine being told by your high school guidance counselor that you shouldn’t set your “sights so high” after informing them you wanted to attend Harvard Law School, and then going on to not only become an accomplished attorney, but the first African American woman to be confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice in the history of the United States.
That is one of the many obstacles and challenges that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, 51, had to overcome to achieve such a historic and monumental accomplishment.
African American (Her)story was made in the United States of America on Thursday, April 7, 2002, as Judge Jackson was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, 53-47, to be the next Supreme Court Justice of the United States.
Prior to April 7th, it was just an exciting hope and prospect. Now, it is a part of American history.
Three Republicans—Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Mitt Romney of Utah, joined all 50 of the Senate Democratic Caucus members for the final vote tally.
The journey for Judge Jackson to the highest court in the land was not easy. It was filled with political gamesmanship and disrespect.
During the confirmation hearings before the Judiciary Committee, several Senate Republicans lobbed baseless accusations and accused Jackson of being lenient on select cases and questioned her record. Judge Jackson was severely mistreated and disrespected, despite having more qualifications than the various senators asking her inappropriate and degrading questions that had absolutely nothing to do with her ability to be a jurist on the U.S. Supreme Court.
For example, during the second day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Judge Jackson was asked to define what a “woman” is by Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn. Judge Jackson replied, “I can’t…I’m not a biologist,” refusing to answer such an odd question and choosing to defer that answer to scientific experts instead.
Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn were amongst those who went down this line of badgering and accusatory questioning.
On Monday, April 4th, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-11, split across party lines, on moving Jackson’s nomination to the Senate floor. Because of the tie vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had to invoke special procedures to advance the nomination.
On the day Judge Jackson was confirmed, Republicans tried to derail the vote on her confirmation through a filibuster, which did not prevail. Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky also delayed the actual confirmation vote for several minutes after arriving late. Of course, he voted no, along with 46 of his Republican colleagues in the Senate.
Judge Jackson was poised and showed strength throughout the Senate confirmation hearings and the entire ordeal—strength she gained as a little girl growing up in Miami, Florida, from her supportive parents and strength from her husband and two young daughters.
Each of those family members were there supporting her from the Senate confirmation hearings until the moment she was confirmed.
Her husband of over 25 years, Patrick G. Jackson, whom she met at Harvard University and their two daughters—Talia Jackson, 21 and Leila Jackson, 17—were there to support Judge Jackson.
Speaking of her parents, Judge Jackson’s mother and father understood the odds their daughter was up against, especially as it relates to racism in this country, as they both attended segregated primary schools and went on to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Her parents were both instrumental in shaping the life and mind of the future attorney and jurist relative to everything she has accomplished to arrive at this moment in history.
Her mother, Ellery Brown, started her career as a public-school teacher and went on to serve as the principal until she retired from the New World School of the Arts, which is a prestigious public arts magnet high school in Miami. Her father, Johnny Brown, also started his career as a public-school teacher, and went on to law school, where he ended up serving as the chief attorney for the Miami-Dade County Public School System until he retired.
In her opening statement during her Senate confirmation hearing, Judge Jackson spoke about the impact her parents had on her life, stating: “When I was born here in Washington, my parents were public school teachers, and to express both pride in their heritage and hope for the future, they gave me an African name, ‘Ketanji Onyika,’ which they were told means ‘lovely one’”.
Judge Jackson went on to say in her opening statement: “My parents taught me that, unlike the many barriers that they had to face growing up, my path was clearer, such that if I worked hard and believed in myself, in America I could do anything or be anything I wanted to be.”
In a compelling lecture that she gave in 2017, Judge Jackson spoke passionately about how she gained a true love and appreciation for the field of law as she sat next to her father in their apartment while he focused on studying and completing his law school homework, reading cases, and preparing for Socratic questioning. Judge Jackson took note of all he did to become a lawyer, and it inspired her, even as a preschool student to consider a path in the same field as her father.
In her opening statement at the Senate confirmation hearing, she also stated: “My very earliest memories are of watching my father study—he had his stack of law books on the kitchen table while I sat across from him with my stack of coloring books.”
Judge Jackson has always been an exceptional student and leader.
While in high school in Miami, Judge Jackson became a speech and debate star, and was elected as student body president of Miami Palmetto Senior High School.
Despite her high school counselor’s limited belief in her, Judge Jackson got accepted and went on to attend Harvard University where she graduated magna cum laude in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in government. After graduating from Harvard, Judge Jackson became a reporter for Time Magazine, and worked in the field of journalism. She went on to continue her education, once again graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law School with a law degree in 1996. While at Harvard Law School, Judge Jackson served as a supervising editor for the Harvard Law Review.
She went on to complete several clerkships, such as serving as clerk to U.S District Judge Patti Saris in Massachusetts from 1996 to 1997, clerk under Judge Bruce Selya from 1997 to 1998. Judge Jackson then joined Miller Cassidy Larroca & Lewin for one year. She completed her last clerkship, which clearly prepared and positioned her for her future role on the high court, as she clerked for her mentor, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, from 1999 to 2000.
In 2005, Judge Jackson went on to work as an associate federal public defender in Washington, D.C., where she represented defendants who did not have the means to pay for a lawyer. Having had this specific legal experience and prowess, it will make her the first former federal public defender to ever serve on the Supreme Court.
President Barack Obama nominated Judge Jackson to serve as the Vice Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2009, and she was confirmed with bipartisan support in 2010. President Obama nominated Judge Jackson for another post in 2012, to be a district court judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, to which she was confirmed with bipartisan support in 2013. After his election in 2020, President Joe Biden nominated Judge Jackson as one of his first judicial nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she was confirmed with bipartisan support in 2021 and currently sits on the bench, awaiting her time to officially replace current Justice Stephen Breyer at the end of his term which will likely be in June or July of this year.
At the end of the day, history has prevailed, and Judge Jackson has been officially confirmed and will be our next U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Several people attended a ceremony held to honor Judge Jackson after her historic confirmation, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was invited by President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.
U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who received her J.D. from the University of Virginia Law School, shared her thoughts on the significance of the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson being embedded in American history forever.
“I am lifted by the history of Black women in this country,” said Jackson Lee, who also attended the confirmation hearings and was on hand outside the Senate chambers after Judge Jackson was confirmed as the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice. “Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Black woman, has ascended to and now will sit on the United States Supreme Court in the midst of trials and tribulations and disparate treatment in the areas of education, criminal justice and healthcare. This is a glorious day, and this is a victory that will never be ceased, as well as a light that will never go out. This confirmation sends a message to all little girls and boys in this country, regardless of race, that this Constitution belongs to you, and if you believe it, you can achieve it.”
The Honorable Judge Clarease Rankin Yates was appointed to the U.S. Immigration Court in 1990 and is the first African American woman in the United States to hold that office. Judge Yates believes that the appointment of Judge Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court will have a profound impact on the entire community and will greatly inspire other African American women to pursue their dreams and stay on the right path.
“This is very personal to me, and my heart is filled with happiness and excitement for my beautiful granddaughters, nieces, and my Texas Southern University students,” said Judge Yates, who received her Juris Doctorate from Temple University and began her legal career in the City of Philadelphia district attorney’s office. “Judge Jackson’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court reaches far beyond the shores of America. Now, this helps all young girls truly know that if they can see it, they can be it.”
Judge Dedra Davis, who is the presiding judge of the 270th District Civil Court, believes that Judge Jackson’s confirmation is a positive thing, because having an African American woman on the U.S. Supreme Court adds an additional perspective and experiences, as well as a new dimension to interpreting the laws because of her varied experiences.
“The confirmation of Judge Jackson brought me to tears,” said Judge Davis, who received her J.D. from South Texas College of Law. “Although Judge Jackson has an Ivy League education, she was not born into a wealthy family, so she has a variety of experiences from which to draw when making decisions. The need for the highest court in the land to have a more diverse group of justices has been long overdue.”
Judge Davis also believes that the U.S. Supreme Court needed to look more like the citizens of the United States of America, and now it does because of Judge Jackson’s confirmation. She is also hopeful that her confirmation doesn’t negatively impact African American women with similar aspirations from future consideration to federal seats because of racism and sexism, especially after the way Judge Jackson was treated during the hearings and confirmation proceedings.
“I wish I could say that I am surprised or astonished by the way Judge Jackson was treated, but we all know that racism and gender discrimination still exist,” said Judge Davis. “An education or job title does not change your race, ethnicity, or gender. I know how I have been treated since becoming a judge here in Texas, and I guarantee you that this isn’t the first time that Judge Jackson experienced some level of disrespect during her journey.”
If you recall, Judge Davis was a part of the “Houston 19,” which were the 19 African American females who ran for judge in Harris County in 2018. The successful outcomes from their candidacies had a significant impact on Texas, in that a group was immediately formed to change the qualifications in Texas for becoming a state judge. Although that group was unsuccessful in making changes due to the Texas Constitution, an item was added to the ballot during one of the most recent elections that changed the Texas Constitution so that the state could change the qualifications for becoming a state judge in Texas.
Judge Teana V. Watson, who is the presiding Judge of County Court at Law #5 in Fort Bend County, believes that Judge Jackson’s confirmation reminds us of what is right and serves as a beacon of light during what is arguably a dark time in World History.
“Judge Jackson’s confirmation gives us all hope,” said Judge Watson, who received her J.D. from the Syracuse University College of Law and has over 27 years of experience as a former prosecutor, municipal judge, and criminal defense attorney. “Her confirmation gives us hope that America is still struggling to live up to its’ true ideals. Hope that we all have a part to play to make sure our democracy works. Hope that even in corporate America where African American women are less than 1% of CEOS of Fortune 500 companies, we must still persevere. Hope that if we work hard, get a good education and persevere we can, our kids can and others can live out the American Dream.”
Judge Toni Wallace, who is the presiding judge of County Court at Law #4 in Fort Bend County, believes that Judge Jackson’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court symbolizes the success that comes even though the struggle exists.
“Judge Jackson has had an impact on me to continue to learn, grow and expand in my role as a judge,” said Judge Wallace, who received her J.D. from South Texas College of Law and was the first African American woman to serve as a county court judge in Fort Bend County. “She renews and energizes my pride in being a judge. Her supreme qualifications remind me that although I have accomplished some things, I have the potential to do even more. Judge Jackson is a daughter, wife, and mother. I am those things too. I live the struggle, but I’m thrilled that I can look to Justice Jackson to see the reward.”
Judge Wallace believes that it is extremely important to have an African American woman on the U.S. Supreme Court because the discussions that involve interpretation of the law in the highest court in the country need input from every community that is impacted by the law. She also believes that an African American woman is uniquely qualified and intrinsically justified to provide a global perspective and influence others to look beyond their limited perspectives.
“Judge Brown represents the audacity of hope, certainly for African American women, but I think for all women of color,” states Judge Wallace. “Judge Brown shows us that hard work, education, and perseverance will move you into rooms where no one looks like you. And when you get there, determination, confidence and preparation will help you prove that you deserve to be there. Judge Brown’s confirmation should inspire and motivate African American women to continue to dream, prepare and persevere.”
Harris County has several African American female prosecutors working at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, who have been impacted by Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s historic confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Harris County First Assistant and Chief of Staff Vivian King, who has served as an attorney for years, believes that Judge Jackson’s appointment will be part of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rich history, and will ensure that the nation’s laws honor the Constitution’s promise of liberty and justice for all.
“Justice Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation in 1967 came at a pivotal period of American history when the Supreme Court was called upon to decide monumental cases involving the constitutional protections of civil rights and other discriminatory obstacles that faced historically oppressed communities,” said King. “As a Black attorney, where approximately 2% of the Texas State Bar is composed of Black female lawyers, I am proud to see Judge Jackson’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court.”
Harris County Assistant District Attorney Raven Hoff states that Judge Jackson made the seemingly impossible achievable.
“The color of her skin represents brilliance coming in all shades,” said Hoff. “I am proud that she chose the hard path. I am proud that she trail-blazed a path for young women of color such as myself. Because of her, I can.”
Harris County Assistant District Attorney Shanice Newton states that Judge Jackson’s confirmation is a huge step forward for Black women, who have always had to work three times harder than their counterparts to have a voice or space in the room.
“I’m so happy and proud of the historic confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson,” said Newton. “I’m glad that we are finally being recognized for our power, intelligence, and grace. We have always been in the background. Now we are finally beginning to get our spotlight.”
Harris County Assistant District Attorney Kim Nwabeke states that Judge Jackson’s confirmation is a breath of fresh air.
“To see her go to the highest court in the land when you’ve had to be twice as good to be good enough makes me feel seen as a woman of color in a place that isn’t necessarily designed for you,” said Nwabeke. “I love the progress we’re making as a society. The struggle isn’t over, but little girls coming up won’t have to work as hard as I did and as hard as Judge Jackson did.”
In what seems like something you could only see in a movie, in this picture-perfect situation, America has seen a young Black girl who wrote in her senior yearbook that she wanted to one day receive a judicial appointment, actually accomplish that goal.
Black history is American history, and we all just witnessed it.
This is a huge milestone, as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joins the late Justice Thurgood Marshall and current Justice Clarence Thomas, as one of only three African American Supreme Court Justices in U.S. history.
This also serves as a huge victory for President Joe Biden, who made a campaign promise to appoint the first-ever Black woman to the high court prior to his election.
Promise made, promise kept.
Please join the Forward Times as we officially introduce to the entire world…newly confirmed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.