Editor’s Note: On February 25, 2022, President Joe Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the 116th Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
On April 7, 2022, a bipartisan group of Senators confirmed Judge Jackson’s nomination. This column was written prior to the confirmation. However, it serves as an informational piece as well.
By Mary Sanchez
The confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson are all over but the voting.
Time to shift away from the antics of U.S. Senators attempting to belittle her judicial record. They cherry-picked a few cases from her more than 570 written decisions, twisting and churning to bolster their own political ends.
Enough mugging for the cameras, please. Show’s over.
Look instead to what an emerging portion of America saw in the hearings. This is the view of an increasingly diverse America, as well as an America that rests between political spectrums. These are the people amenable to seeing another’s view, if approached with facts and fairness. There’s more of them than the media often implies.
Jackson seems at home in this moderate vein. She also displays an adept sense of herself as a bridge-builder, a connector.
By virtue of her experiences and influences, she’s comfortable living in many different worlds; Black, white, Latino, bi-racial, those born to social capital and those who, no matter how hard they strive, will have none of those benefits.
Code-switching is one term for this. It means knowing the tone, lingo and inflections that tend to differentiate groups. In another sense, it is knowing the unstated “rules” for what is acceptable and preferable within racial groups or class levels of people.
If confirmed, Jackson will be the first Black female U.S. Supreme Court justice. That’s enough of an achievement, even if she didn’t carry this extra set of desirable qualities.
But she does. And it’s so laudable for her role on the court as the nation becomes increasingly diverse and as it tries to pull back from the hyperbolic and polarizing conversations that take up too much of our politics and time. Isn’t it time to move beyond the culture wars and all the finger-pointing and incivility?
Jackson formed her guiding principles early. She decided to pick up the mantle from her parents.
They lived through segregation and were highly involved in the civil rights movement. They chose an African name for their daughter so that she would always know from where her bloodline originated. They wanted her to remain cognizant of the tremendous sin of slavery and all of its unending ramifications.
Ketanji Onyika means “lovely one.”
She would be attuned to the opportunities her parents didn’t have, by virtue of their race and when they were born. That’s similar to how first-generation immigrant people often feel and function in America.
Both of Jackson’s parents were educated. Her mother was a teacher and then a principal of a prominent high school. Her father was first a teacher, then an attorney, and finally became the lead counsel for the Dade County School Board.
Jackson attended a diverse high school.
She is a relatively darker-skinned Black woman, so she likely knows about colorism, the way race is divided and judged by gradations of hue, even within racial groups. Her husband is white and of a far higher social class by birth — the seventh generation in his family to attend Harvard. Their daughters are bi-racial.
Jackson went from her public school background to the prep world of her husband, whom she met when both attended Harvard.
She had high school counselors who tried to dissuade her from thinking that she could rise into the Ivy League. Despite the naysayers, she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law.
Multiple reports leading up to the confirmation hearings spoke of how Jackson was always the one seeking compromise.
Even in her opening statement, she emphasized her lengthy written rulings, noting that she wanted each litigant to know that she had heard them and considered carefully her opinion, even when their side didn’t prevail.
Her background also includes working for the U.S. Sentencing Commission at a time of highly unfair sentencing for crack and cocaine offenders. There was also her time as a federal prosecutor, juxtaposed against her time in private practice.
At 51, Jackson, if confirmed, would be the second youngest on the court. Amy Coney Barrett is a year younger and Neil McGill Gorsuch is 54. So, she’d likely have plenty of time to make a lasting impact on the court, given her unique life experiences.
In its current makeup, the court tilts heavily in favor of the conservatives. A voice like hers — deferential to precedent but also highly focused on explaining her decisions — would help recover some balance.
She’s on the cusp of holding that tremendous platform.
I suspect that is partially why she seemed at ease in the face of all the Republican badgering. Her demeanor wasn’t just practiced poise, it also reflected her understanding that as a woman, especially a Black woman, she would lose stature in the eyes of some if she became defensive.
She offered barely an utterable sigh, no full eye rolls, and only a few side glances as some of the senators prattled on. There’s no triggering those who are solidly grounded.
Jackson’s nomination is a serious matter. And if confirmed, her legacy will live far beyond any of those men who so disrespectfully stole time from her in the spotlight of the hearings.
This is her moment to step forward. Her ancestors took the first steps. She followed in their footsteps, diligently preparing her whole life for this moment.