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Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmed by Senate as first Black woman on Supreme Court

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/7/2022 Dylan Wells, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – The Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon, making her the 116th justice – and first Black woman – to serve on the nation's highest court. 

The Senate's historic vote was 53-47, and three Republicans – Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah – joined every member of the Democratic caucus in voting for her confirmation. 

President Joe Biden nominated Jackson in February after Associate Justice Stephen Breyer announced he would retire at the end of this court term. Though confirmed, Jackson, 51, will wait months to take her seat on the bench, until Breyer officially steps down.

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Though Jackson's ascension will not change the ideological makeup of the court – where conservatives hold a 6-3 advantage – she will be the first federal public defender to sit on the high court. Of the 115 justices in the Supreme Court's 233-year history, 108 have been white men. Only five have been women, and three have been people of color. 

When Jackson takes her seat, it will be the first time the court's nine-member bench will include two Black justices and four female justices.

"Judge Jackson’s confirmation was a historic moment for our nation," Biden tweeted after the vote. "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."

Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to serve in her role, presided over the Senate for the vote. Most of the senators were in their seats, announcing their vote aloud one-by-one alphabetically before Harris read the final tally to the packed chamber.

The chamber erupted in cheers after Harris announced the vote.

"It's an extraordinary day, and I think it's a very important statement today about who we are as a nation that we put Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on the highest court of our land," a "very proud" Harris said after the vote.

"I think it makes a very important statement about who we aspire to be, who we are, who we believe ourselves to be," she said. "It's a statement that on our highest court in the land, we want to make sure there's going to be full representation and the finest and the brightest and the best, and that's what happened today."

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., one of only three Black senators – none of whom is a women –  told USA TODAY that during the vote, Harris encouraged him and Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., to write letters to young girls in their life. Harris gave them paper from her office, which features a gold seal and says "The Vice President." 

"Seeing Judge Jackson ascend to the Supreme Court reflects the promise of progress on which our democracy risks. What a great day it is in America," Warnock said. "Today, the word of justice and equal protection under the law becomes flesh."

Biden and Jackson watched the results of the Senate vote on her nomination in the Roosevelt Room, alongside White House senior staff. Biden, Harris and Jackson will deliver remarks on the judge’s confirmation Friday on the South Lawn of the White House.

The momentous vote was temporarily overshadowed by the news of a COVID-19 outbreak among several lawmakers who attended Saturday's Gridiron Club dinner featuring journalists and politicians. Several senators attended the dinner, all of whom showed up for Thursday's vote.

Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 23. The Harvard-educated Jackson made history as the first Black woman nominated in the court's 233 years. © Andrew Harnik, AP Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 23. The Harvard-educated Jackson made history as the first Black woman nominated in the court's 233 years.

Jackson serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, appointed by Biden. She previously served as a U.S. District Court judge, appointed by President Barack Obama. Before that, the Harvard Law School graduate served as vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and as a federal public defender. 

Jackson, a former clerk for Breyer, was a front-runner for Biden's first Supreme Court nomination. Her confirmation marks the fourth time she was approved by the Senate. She was confirmed to her role on the Court of Appeals with bipartisan support last year, including Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Collins and Murkowski. 

During his presidential campaign, Biden promised to nominate a Black woman to the high court. At a primary debate in South Carolina in 2020, he said, "I'm looking forward to making sure there's a Black woman on the Supreme Court, to make sure we, in fact, get every representation."

While much of Biden's agenda is held up in the 50-50 Senate, Jackson's confirmation will be one of the lasting legacies of his first term. Democratic senators made sure to highlight the significance of the moment.

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Jackson likely confirmed in a hurry. Getting on the Supreme Court? That'll take time.

Despite her earlier confirmations, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Jackson's nomination took an acrimonious turn. 

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her confirmation hearing on March 22, 2022. © Anna Moneymaker, Getty Images Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her confirmation hearing on March 22, 2022.

Though Republican members of the committee largely praised Jackson's character and demeanor, they accused her of being soft on crime – in particular, they said she offered too-lenient sentences in a number of child pornography cases. GOP Sens. Graham, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri led the crusade against Jackson. In addition to her record on sentencing, they pushed Jackson on hot political topics such as gender, packing the court and critical race theory. Some Republicans took issue with her representing accused enemy combatants from the military's Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba when she was a public defender. 

"Based on her record, I believe she will prove to be the furthest left of any justice who has ever served on the Supreme Court," Cruz said before the vote Thursday.

Judicial philosophy to child porn sentencing: Takeaways from Ketanji Brown Jackson's Supreme Court hearings

Murkowski, one of the three Republicans to break from her conference in support of Jackson, said after the vote that she hadn't faced any pushback from Republican leaders or her colleagues. 

"The confirmation of Judge Jackson is one that will help to ensure that the face of the United States Supreme Court is more representative of the American people," she said. "I think that that is important."

Democrats stressed the historic nature of Jackson's nomination and what it means to have a Black woman join the court. 

During one of the hearings, Jackson teared up as Bookerspoke about how meaningful her nomination was to him.

"You have earned this spot. You are worthy," Booker told Jackson. 

"I’m sorry, you’re a person that is so much more than your race and gender," he said. "But for me, I’m sorry, it’s hard for me not to look at you and not see my mom, not to see my cousins. ... I see my ancestors and yours."

Contributing: John Fritze, Rebecca Morin

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmed by Senate as first Black woman on Supreme Court

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