WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden's nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court has launched what Democrats hope will be a quick, bipartisan confirmation process for the court's first Black woman.
Jackson would replace Justice Stephen Breyer, who has said he will retire this summer at the end of the court's current session. But Democrats want to confirm Jackson months or weeks before that, ensuring she is the justice-in-waiting, in case the 50-50 balance of the Senate shifts in any way. Democrats control the Senate because Vice President Kamala Harris has the tie-breaking vote.
As they figure out the timeline ahead, Democrats are looking to the 2020 confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett as a new standard. While other nominees had taken several months, Barrett was confirmed a little more than five weeks after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just ahead of the presidential election that year. Jackson’s confirmation will likely take longer than that, but Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said Friday the panel will start the process “immediately.”
The last three Supreme Court confirmations, all nominees chosen by then-President Donald Trump, were intense partisan battles that deeply divided the Senate. Democrats say they want to bring down the temperature and confirm Jackson with votes from both Republicans and Democrats. But it’s unclear if they will be able to do that.
When announcing Jackson's nomination on Friday, Biden noted that he had met with Durbin and the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, in recent weeks. “My hope is that they will move promptly,” Biden said. “And I know they'll move fairly.”
A look at Jackson’s nomination, and the next steps in the Senate:
WHO IS KETANJI BROWN JACKSON?
Jackson was nominated by President Biden in 2021 to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and confirmed by the Senate last June. She previously sat on the D.C. district court, nominated by former President Barack Obama and confirmed in 2013. She worked as a law clerk for Breyer early in her career and served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the agency that develops federal sentencing policy.
In accepting the nomination Friday, Jackson said she hopes her life, career and love of country and the Constitution "will inspire future generations of Americans.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Friday the Senate will move forward on the nomination with a “fair, timely and expeditious process."
Once the White House officially transmits Jackson’s nomination to Capitol Hill, the next step is for the Judiciary Committee to send her an extensive questionnaire and document request to begin the vetting. Meanwhile, Jackson will begin setting up meetings with any senators who want to meet her for private conversations before public hearings begin. She is expected to begin making the rounds on Capitol Hill next week.
Senators will spend the next few weeks reading up on Jackson’s background, career and, most importantly, her decisions and opinions as a federal judge.
Her confirmation hearings, expected to last around four days, could begin as soon as mid-March.
WHEN COULD SHE BE CONFIRMED?
Democrats have an unofficial goal of confirming Jackson by April 8, when the Senate is scheduled to leave Washington for a two-week spring recess.
That may be asking a lot, but Biden made the process easier by picking Jackson, who was already vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year when Biden nominated her for her current job. Schumer said that once Judiciary votes on the nomination, the Senate will move immediately to confirm her.
Several factors could still delay action. Democrats are waiting on the return of New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Luján, who suffered a stroke several weeks ago and is expected back in the Senate next month. Without Luján, Democrats don’t have the necessary 50 votes in the Senate, and would have to depend on some Republican support.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine could also complicate the timeline, as the U.S. response will occupy the Senate and the White House in the weeks to come. Jackson herself referred to the conflict abroad, thanking Biden on Friday for “the care that you have taken in discharging your constitutional duty in service of our democracy with all that is going on in the world today.”
HOW HAVE REPUBLICANS REACTED?
Most Senate Republicans are expected to oppose the nomination, and their early statements were skeptical. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell questioned Jackson's productivity as an appeals court judge, others her record on crime and her political leanings.
But because Jackson replacing Breyer would not shift the ideological balance of the court, and because Republicans confirmed three conservative justices under Trump, GOP senators may not spend a lot of political energy opposing her. As the midterm elections approach, Republicans want to keep the focus on issues like inflation and education that they believe are politically damaging to Democrats.
Race looms as a potential flashpoint. Several GOP senators have said it was inappropriate for Biden to pledge during his presidential campaign that he would nominate a Black woman. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said that was discriminatory and an “insult” to Black women. Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker said he viewed Biden’s promise as “affirmative action” for the Supreme Court.
But McConnell has made clear he doesn’t want that kind of criticism to continue. Speaking in Kentucky this week, he dismissed claims that Biden's promise was inappropriate and noted that Trump himself pledged to put a woman on the court before Barrett was nominated.
“I guarantee she will be respectfully vetted with the kind of process I think you can be proud of,” McConnell said Tuesday. On Friday, he said he looked forward to meeting with Jackson.
DO DEMOCRATS NEED REPUBLICAN VOTES?
As long as Luján returns by the final vote, and the rest of the Democratic caucus stays healthy and present in Washington, Democrats could confirm Jackson with no Republican support. Vice President Harris could break a tie.
Still, Biden and Durbin have said they want the vote to be bipartisan. Biden invited several Republican senators to the White House as he weighed his pick, and Durbin has stayed in close touch with several key Republicans, including Grassley and Susan Collins, a Maine moderate.
Republicans Collins, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina all voted for Jackson’s confirmation to the federal appeals court last year. While Collins has appeared open to voting for her again, it is unclear whether Murkowski, who is up for reelection this year, or Graham, who had pushed for another candidate, will support her.
Graham, who has voted for several of Biden’s judicial nominees, had pushed the president to nominate federal Judge J. Michelle Childs, a South Carolinian. He said earlier this month that his vote would be “very problematic” if Childs were not the nominee, and he expressed disappointment after the announcement from the White House on Friday.
WHY IS JACKSON’S NOMINATION HISTORIC?
Jackson would be the first Black female justice in the court’s more than 200 years of existence.
Of the 115 justices who have served, there have been just five women, beginning with Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. One of the five, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, is a Latina. The others have all been white -- O’Connor, Coney Barrett, Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.
Clarence Thomas and the late Thurgood Marshall are the only two Black men who have served on the court.
“For too long, our government, our courts, haven’t looked like America,” Biden said on Friday.