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Democrats revel in history during Supreme Court confirmation vote

Democrats marked a day that broke down a barrier to the highest court in the nation

Vice President Kamala Harris arrives at the U.S. Capitol before the Senate voted to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court by a vote of 53-47, on Thursday.
Vice President Kamala Harris arrives at the U.S. Capitol before the Senate voted to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court by a vote of 53-47, on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Vice President Kamala Harris couldn’t hold back a broad smile and a crack in her voice as she guided the Senate’s final steps to confirming the first Black woman to the Supreme Court Thursday.

And after Harris announced the results of the final vote for Ketanji Brown Jackson, she let applause carry on from the Democrats and members of the Congressional Black Caucus who lined the back of the chamber. The former senator from California would bang the gavel to bring back order, but she didn’t try too hard.

It was among the actions and speeches, grand and small, that Democrats used to mark a day that broke down a barrier to the highest court in the nation.

“I’m overjoyed, deeply moved,” Harris told reporters after she presided over the vote in her role as president of the Senate. “You know, there’s so much about what’s happening in the world now, that is presenting some of the worst of this moment and human behaviors. And then we have a moment like this.”

“That, I think, reminds us that there is still so much yet to accomplish and that we can accomplish, including a day like today that is so historic and so important, for so many reasons,” said Harris, who is the first woman, first Black and first Asian vice president.

Speeches and celebration in the chamber focused on the historic fact of Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court; of the 115 Justices to serve on the court, only five have been women and two have been Black.

Republicans reiterated their opposition to Jackson on Thursday, rooted in her criminal sentencing decisions and rulings in cases like immigration policy.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., one of three Black senators and the senior pastor at civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.’s church in Atlanta, said on the Senate floor that Jackson navigated the “double jeopardy” of racism and sexism to reach the highest court in the land.

“I know what it has taken for Judge Jackson to reach this moment and no one is going to steal my joy,” Warnock said. “I’m a senator. I’m a pastor. But beyond all of that, I’m the father of a young Black girl.”

“Seeing Judge Jackson ascend to the Supreme Court reflects the promise of progress on which our democracy rests,” Warnock said.

A vote to watch

During the final vote to confirm Jackson, more than a dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus lined the back wall of the Senate chamber. A crowd of about 200 watched from the gallery, a mix of House members, staff and guests. Laughter rippled through them at the emphatic “yes” votes from Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is Black, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Warnock.

The vote remained open for almost half an hour as the chamber waited for Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul to cast his “no” vote. Paul, along with a few other dressed-down Republicans, voted from the Senate’s cloakroom rather than their desks in the packed chamber.

While waiting for Paul’s vote, Harris spoke to Booker and Warnock. Booker later told the Associated Press she handed over a pair of pages of vice presidential stationery, with instructions to write a letter to a young Black woman in his life about the moment.

“I thought it was a beautiful gesture,” Booker told the AP, adding he still had to think on who to write to.

The chamber burst into a standing ovation when Harris called the final tally, 53-47, to put Jackson on the highest court in the land after Justice Stephen G. Breyer retires at the end of the term, coming at the end of June.

During the applause, as most Republicans filed out of the chamber, Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema wiped away tears. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III embraced Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, one of three Republicans to vote for Jackson’s confirmation along with all 50 senators in the Democratic caucus.

Along the back wall, retiring North Carolina Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield waved his mask over his head and Texas Democratic Rep. Al Green, waved a cane in celebration. Both are members of the CBC.

After the vote, Ohio Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty, the head of the CBC, lead a group of smiling members of her caucus in a press conference with reporters.

“It is not just that she is a black woman, but she is a black woman who is supremely qualified,” Beatty said. “We will remember this day.”

History to come

President Joe Biden, who promised to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court on the campaign trail, had Jackson join him along with White House staff in the Roosevelt Room to take in the Senate results. Biden’s twitter account posted a photo of the president taking a selfie with Jackson in front of a television showing C-SPAN and the vote count.

“Judge Jackson’s confirmation was a historic moment for our nation,” Biden said in the tweet. “We’ve taken another step toward making our highest court reflect the diversity of America. She will be an incredible Justice, and I was honored to share this moment with her.”

The White House announced Thursday that Jackson, Biden and Harris would speak about the confirmation at an event Friday.

In a speech before the vote, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called Jackson a “once in a generation legal talent,” and noted that when the Supreme Court first met in the Capitol in 1801, one fifth of the nation’s five million people lived in slavery.

Black women were at first only allowed into the Supreme Court chambers at night, to clean them, Durbin said. Then 55 years ago, two years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Senate confirmed Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black man to serve on the Supreme Court.

“Now with the passage of that time, we are beginning to write another chapter in our nation’s quest for equal justice under the law and that chapter begins with three letters – KBJ,” Durbin said.

Benjamin J. Hulac contributed to this report.