US appeals court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has been nominated to the United States Supreme Court by President Joe Biden. She will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for hearings beginning on March 21. If confirmed, she would be the first Black woman and only the sixth woman in US history to serve on the top court.
Jackson needs 51 votes to be confirmed and with Democrats in narrow control of the 50-50 Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker, she is expected to be approved.
“It seems like her nomination is going to go through,” said James Thurber, a professor of government at American University in Washington, DC. But “there will be tough questions” from Republicans in her confirmation hearings, he said.
With a conservative 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court poised to deliver major new rulings in coming months, the confirmation process for Supreme Court justices has become highly politicised. Jackson has been nominated to replace retiring liberal Justice Stephen Breyer and her affiliation with Democratic viewpoints will make her a target for Republican rhetorical attacks.
Since being nominated on February 25, Jackson has been meeting individually with senators in the lead-up to the hearings, which will give her the opportunity to make a case publicly and detail why she should become the next US Supreme Court justice.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Senator Dick Durbin has outlined how the hearings will proceed:
Day one – Opening statements
The Judiciary Committee will meet March 21 at 11am (15:00 GMT) to take opening statements. Each of 22 senators on the committee will have 10 minutes to speak, followed by formal introductions of Jackson and her opening statement.
Senators can be expected to stake out lines of questioning and commentary they intend to pursue over the next two days. Broadly speaking, Democrats are likely to commend Jackson’s record as a highly talented lawyer and a jurist while Republicans have signalled they will raise concerns that she favours the liberal views of the US’s political left.
Day two – Senators’ questions
Questioning of Jackson will begin on March 22 at 9am (13:00 GMT) with each senator having an opportunity to speak for 30 minutes each. The questioning will proceed by order of seniority so that the longest-serving members on the committee will ask their questions first.
Senators will use their time both to ask questions and make statements, including on political issues of the day that are pending now before the court such as abortion rights, gun control and racial preferences in higher education.
“Many of the senators will be speaking to their political base when they ask the questions – from the left and the right. It will be theatre to a certain extent,” Thurber said.
Day three – Second round of questions
On March 23, the Judiciary Committee will reconvene at 9am (13:00 GMT) for a second round of questioning by senators, limited to 20 minutes each and by order of seniority. Senators often use these second-day opportunities to amplify messages they want to send, rebut points made by senators of the opposing party, or to confront the nominee with new or potentially negative information.
One potential line of criticism for Republicans is likely to be Jackson’s prior service as a public defender – a lawyer paid by the court to represent indigent clients. On the US appeals court, Jackson was part of a three-judge panel that ruled against former President Donald Trump’s bid to block Congress from obtaining White House records relevant to the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Day four – ABA and outside witnesses
On March 24, the committee will hear from the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Judiciary, which by tradition is to offer an independent, non-partisan peer evaluation of Jackson’s qualifications. Other outside groups will also offer their perspectives. She has been endorsed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Jackson attended Harvard Law School, regarded as one of the top universities in the US. She was named by Biden to the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in Washington in 2021 and was confirmed to that seat by the Senate in 53-44 vote with support from three Republicans.
Jackson was first appointed in 2013 to be a judge on the US District Court in Washington, DC, by former President Barack Obama. She was confirmed by the Senate by a unanimous voice vote at that time.
Full Senate vote
Once the hearings are concluded, the full Senate is expected to vote on Jackson without delay, most likely before a scheduled April 11 break. Justice Breyer will remain on the bench until the end of the court’s present term, usually in June or July. If all goes well for Democrats, Jackson would assume her seat in October when the new term begins.