Ketanji Brown Jackson appears before the Senate judiciary committee on Monday, at the start of confirmation hearings that could see her become the first Black woman to sit on the US supreme court since it was founded more than two centuries ago.
The hearings, scheduled to run for four days, are critical not just for their history-making potential. Whether Joe Biden succeeds in placing his nominee on the nation’s highest court, ideally with bipartisan backing, could help to make or break his presidency.
Jackson, at 51, would be the second youngest member of the nine-person court after Amy Coney Barrett, should she survive the upcoming white-water ride. Though her appointment would leave the six to three rightwing balance of the court – she would replace fellow liberal-leaning Stephen Breyer – she could play a seminal role in shaping the country’s legal landscape for decades to come.
Monday’s hearing will be devoted to opening statements from Jackson and from the committee’s 22 senators, who are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Two days of questioning of the candidate will follow, with outside witnesses called on Thursday.
A full vote of the Senate is expected to determine Jackson’s fate before a recess on 8 April.
The White House will be hoping for a smooth and dignified confirmation process under the capable oversight of Dick Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois, who chairs the select committee. But Democratic managers cannot be complacent about the chances of Jackson getting through.
Critical to her chances of success will be whether any moderate Republicans can be lured to back her at a time when opposition senators supporting supreme court nominees has become increasingly rare. When Jackson was confirmed by the Senate for a seat in the US court of appeals for the DC circuit in June, three Republicans came on board: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
This time, though, Graham has indicated that he might be less amenable, suggesting Jackson mixes in radical leftwing circles.
Should the Democrats fail to attract bipartisan support, then all eyes will turn to the most conservative Democratic senators – in particular Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has already scuppered much of Biden’s policy ambitions. With a 50-50 split in the Senate, and Vice-President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote, the Democrats cannot afford even a single defection if the vote goes on party lines.
From the moment that Breyer announced his retirement in January, issues of race have been at the front and centre of the search for his successor. In nominating Jackson, Biden honoured the pledge he made during the 2020 presidential election campaign to pick a Black woman for the court.
Biden’s vow “to make sure we get everyone represented”, made in the course of a televised debate with Donald Trump, was seen as pivotal in gaining him the support of Black voters. That in turn helped Biden secure his own nomination as Democratic presidential candidate and with it the presidency.
Leading Republicans have attempted to use Biden’s selection of a Black woman as a stick with which to beat him. They have decried the decision as an “affirmative-action hire” and a product of “wokeness” – overlooking the fact that Ronald Reagan followed through on his 1980 promise to put a woman on the top court.
Born in Washington, Jackson was brought up largely in Florida and legally trained at Harvard law school. She is unusual among candidates for the supreme court to have had experience as a public defender representing criminal defendants.
She has sat on the federal bench since 2013, rising to the US appeals court for the DC circuit last year. That court has been labelled the “second highest court in the land” because so many supreme court justices have been plucked from there.