In a brief mention in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Joe Biden described his Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson as a “consensus builder” and touted her support from the Fraternal Order of Police, before moving on to other topics.
That was understandable in a time of war and division, overseas and closer to home. But that doesn’t mean that Jackson’s spot is guaranteed. As she makes the rounds this week, visiting with senators from both parties, it’s a reminder of the tightrope she must walk, the challenges she must overcome even as the rules in this high-stakes game keep changing.
As an African-American woman who has achieved much, she’s proved she is up to the task.
Understandably, many Black women in America celebrated when Biden fulfilled his campaign promise and nominated Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court. She would be the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court, though there have been many who were deserving, one of the most obvious being the first Black woman appointed to the federal bench, Constance Baker Motley, whose life and work are chronicled in the new book “Civil Rights Queen.”
Black women formed a strong part of the coalition that put Biden in the Oval Office and have been stalwart citizens throughout American history, on the forefront of human rights, civil rights and voting activism through icons such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height and Shirley Chisholm and so many others who never received the recognition they deserved.
I have a hunch that if former President Barack Obama had nominated Jackson, who reportedly was on his short list, instead of Merrick B. Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the court, her almost-certain dis by Senate Republicans, led by then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, would have triggered a groundswell that would have carried Hillary Clinton into the White House.
Jackson, then and now, would have to be prepared for whatever might come her way during confirmation hearings, set to start March 21 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
She’s already been subjected to a grilling from Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn. During her hearing last year for her spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Cornyn asked: “What role does race play, Judge Jackson, in the kind of judge you have been and the kind of judge you will be?”
Instead of rolling her eyes and asking if he’d ever asked that of a white judge looking for his approval, Jackson calmly answered, “I don’t think that race plays a role in the kind of judge that I have been and that I would be in the way you asked that question.” She added: “I would say that my different professional background than many of the court of appeals judges, including my district court background, would bring value.”
Cornyn still voted against her.
If past is prologue, Jackson’s interrogation will resemble the treatment of Sonia Sotomayor — who was questioned on her temperament by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, giving credence to anonymous quotes calling her “excitable” (translation, “hot-blooded”) — and not that of Amy Coney Barrett, who was gushed over as a “role model for little girls” by Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican from Texas.
And then there’s Brett M. Kavanaugh, who — in a performance that launched a thousand memes — did everything short of bursting a vein as he raged his way through his hearing but was never in danger of being labeled an “angry black woman.”
Work hard, study hard, go to an Ivy League school, and good things — like a Supreme Court seat — will come to you. Well, if you’re Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and almost every other judge on the Court.
In the case of Jackson, nominated to fill the seat of Stephen G. Breyer, the justice for whom she clerked, Graham dismisses Harvard and Harvard Law with a snarky comment that the “Harvard-Yale train to the Supreme Court continues to run unabated.” I do believe his votes have contributed to that train running for years.
But as many Black women have learned, those Ivy League bona fides, and more judicial experience than Roberts, Barrett, Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan had before they joined the court, won’t shield Jackson from the affirmative action label that’s already been tossed around.
What should be an asset — a background as a public defender and criminal defense attorney on a court pledged to treat all fairly — is framed as a liability by Republican lawmakers who should know that our justice system counts on the accused having representation. Is innocent until proven guilty still a thing? That’s something I might ask Sens. Cruz (Harvard Law), Josh Hawley (Yale Law) and John Kennedy (University of Virginia School of Law).
Isn’t following in the footsteps of the late icon Thurgood Marshall something to be admired? Jackson’s perceived balance might add needed perspective and burnish the reputation of a Supreme Court the American public increasingly sees as partisan.
Probably what’s most frustrating to many Black women watching this process play out so predictably is the flattening of Jackson as a complex and complete human being.
Njeri Mathis Rutledge, who, full disclosure, I know and work with, attended Harvard Law School with Jackson, and besides describing her as someone with “a next-level focus and drive” in a column in The Hill, wrote about Jackson as a person. “She had a big, beautiful smile and a joyful laugh. She was kind and down to earth. … Judge Jackson treats people with respect and is a good listener, which are crucial attributes to persuasion.”
All the warm and fuzzies that greeted adoptive mom Barrett during her elevation to the court may not be visited on someone at least as deserving and a role model for girls of all races, as well. I’d love to be proven wrong on that count.
Jackson has worked for justice, whether it’s by serving on a sentencing commission to reduce unfair disparities or being an advocate for those who truly needed her. Her own words, standing near the president who nominated her, give a hint to why she believes all that, and helping raise a lovely family, has been worthwhile.
After honoring Motley, with whom she shares a birthday, for “her steadfast and courageous commitment to equal justice under law,” Jackson said that, if confirmed, “I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded will inspire future generations of Americans.”
While I cannot predict how her hearings will proceed, of one thing I am sure. Jackson will more than live up to the expectations many Americans are placing on her shoulders.
A lot of pressure? Yes. But this accomplished Black woman, relatable to many walking that same tightrope, is used to it.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.