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President Biden nominates Ketanji Brown Jackson to be first Black woman to sit on Supreme Court

Feb 25, 2022, 12:21 PM | Updated: 1:27 pm
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a U.S. Circuit Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of ...
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a U.S. Circuit Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, poses for a portrait, Friday, Feb., 18, 2022, in her office at the court in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Originally Published: 25 FEB 22 08:45 ET

(CNN) — President Joe Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Friday, setting in motion a historic confirmation process for the first Black woman to sit on the highest court in the nation.

Related: Utah professor: Supreme Court nominee short list features great options

“Today, as we watch freedom and liberty under attack abroad, I’m here to fulfill my responsibilities under the Constitution, to preserve freedom and liberty here in the United States of America,” Biden said at the White House as he introduced Jackson.

“For too long, our government, our courts haven’t looked like America,” Biden said. “I believe it’s time that we have a court reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation with a nominee of extraordinary qualifications, and that we inspire all young people to believe that they can one day serve their country at the highest level.”

Jackson, 51, currently sits on DC’s federal appellate court and had been considered the front-runner for the vacancy since Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement.

RELATED: Republicans attack Biden Supreme Court pick as pawn of ‘radical Left’

She received and accepted Biden’s offer in a call Thursday night, a source familiar with the decision told CNN, but was present for DC Circuit Court hearings Friday morning.

Biden met with Jackson for her Supreme Court interview earlier this month, a senior administration official said, in a meeting that the White House managed to keep secret.

Related: Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to retire

For more than a year, the President had familiarized himself with her work, reading many of her opinions and other writings, along with those of other contenders.

But the official said Biden also was impressed by her life story, including her rise from federal public defender to federal appellate judge — and her upbringing as the daughter of two public school teachers and administrators.

“President Biden sought a candidate with exceptional credentials, unimpeachable character and unwavering dedication to the rule of law,” the senior official said.

From the beginning, Jackson was the leading contender, but the official said the President gave “considerable weight” to other finalists, including Judge J. Michelle Childs and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger.

The President reached his final decision this week, the official said, and extended the offer to her in a phone call on Thursday evening. She accepted in the call, which lasted several minutes.

Related: Biden doing ‘deep dive’ on ‘about 4’ high court candidates

The White House considered delaying the announcement, given the Russian invasion in Ukraine, but believed it was critical to get the second phase of the confirmation process moving, the official said.

In a statement, the White House cited Jackson’s “broad experience across the legal profession,” pointing to her career as a federal appellate judge, a federal district court judge, a member of the US Sentencing Commission, an attorney in private practice and as a federal public defender. The White House described Jackson as “an exceptionally qualified” and “historic” nominee, calling on the Senate to “move forward with a fair and timely hearing and confirmation.”

Jackson clerked for Breyer and served as a federal public defender in Washington — an experience that her backers say is fitting, given Biden’s commitment to putting more public defenders on the federal bench. She was also a commissioner on the US Sentencing Commission and served on the federal district court in DC, as an appointee of President Barack Obama, before Biden elevated her to the DC Circuit last year.

Opportunity for Biden to excite Democrats

Biden’s pick is a chance for him to fire up a Democratic base that is less excited to vote in this year’s midterm elections than it has been over the past several election cycles. It’s also a welcome change of topic for the President, whose approval ratings have been sagging in recent months as the Covid-19 pandemic has dragged on and inflation has affected consumers across the nation. The selection gives Biden a chance to deliver on one of his top campaign promises, and he’ll hope that the Black voters who were crucial to his election win will see this as a return on their investment.

Though it is historic, the choice of Jackson will not change the ideological makeup of the court. The court currently has six conservative justices and three liberal justices — and the retiring Breyer comes from the liberal camp. The court is already poised to continue its turn toward the right with high-profile cases and rulings expected from the court in the coming months on abortion, gun control and religious liberty issues.

Eyes will now turn to the Senate, where Biden’s Democratic Party holds the thinnest possible majority. The President will hope that Jackson can garner bipartisan support, but Democrats will need all their members in Washington to ensure her confirmation. Unlike for most major pieces of legislation, Democrats do not need Republican help to confirm a Supreme Court justice and can do it with their 50 votes and Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a deadlock. When Jackson was confirmed to the appellate bench, she had the support of three Republican senators. Harris, who the White House says played an active role in the selection process, was working the phones Friday morning, calling senators as the news was reported.

Jackson is expected to have her courtesy meetings with senators next week, according to a person familiar with the plans. It’s common for Supreme Court nominees to meet with the leadership on both sides, then members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

As a judge in DC — where some of the most politically charged cases are filed — Jackson’s issued notable rulings touching on Congress’ ability to investigate the White House. As a district court judge, she wrote a 2019 opinion siding with House lawmakers who sought the testimony of then-White House Counsel Don McGahn. Last year, she was on the unanimous circuit panel that ordered disclosure of certain Trump White House documents to the House January 6 committee.

The White House indicated her time in the federal public defenders’ office was critical to Biden’s selection, setting her apart from other candidates. Biden sought “an individual who is committed to equal justice under the law and who understands the profound impact that the Supreme Court’s decisions have on the lives of the American people,” the White House said.

Following Breyer’s retirement announcement in late January, Biden began reviewing background materials, such as legal records and writings, about his potential picks.

Biden first committed to nominating a Black female US Supreme Court justice when he was running for president in 2020. On a debate stage in South Carolina, Biden argued that his push to make “sure there’s a Black woman on the Supreme Court” was rooted in an effort to “get everyone represented.”

Though there are currently no Black women serving in the United States Senate in a position to vote for the nominee, Black female House members, all Democrats, applauded Biden for “fulfilling his campaign promise.”

Congressional Black Caucus chair Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio said the nomination is “something that I will remember forever.” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey said Jackson will “bring a new, necessary perspective” to the court and “will also be an inspiration to Black women and girls everywhere.” Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida said she “never dreamed that, in my lifetime, I would see a Black woman nominated” to the Supreme Court.

Jackson was born in the nation’s capital but grew up in the Miami area. She was a member of the debate team at Miami Palmetto Senior High School before earning both her undergraduate degree and law degree at Harvard.

At her 2021 confirmation hearing for the appellate court, she connected her family’s professions — her parents worked in public schools — to her decision to work as a public defender.

“I come from a background of public service. My parents were in public service, my brother was a police officer and (was) in the military,” she said at the time, “and being in the public defenders’ office felt very much like the opportunity to help with my skills and talents.”

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, is a relative by marriage and introduced her at the 2013 hearing for her district court nomination.

Republicans signal potential opposition

Conservatives have already previewed how they will scrutinize her record defending Guantanamo Bay detainees as a public defender. The role she played in her uncle’s successful efforts to seek a commutation from former President Barack Obama has also attracted attention. When she was in private practice in 2008, she referred her uncle’s file to the firm Wilmer Hale, which several years later submitted the file.

As a judge, some other notable cases she has in her record are a 2018 case brought federal employee unions where she blocked parts of executive orders issued by former President Donald Trump, and a case where she ruled against Trump policies that expand the categories of non-citizens who could be subject to expedited removal procedures without being able to appear before a judge.

Jackson penned more than 500 opinions in the eight years she spent on the district court.

Though Biden has said that he’d pick a nominee with bipartisan appeal who is “worthy of Justice Breyer’s legacy of excellence and decency,” his decision to name the first Black woman to the court is already facing Republican opposition. Several Senate Republicans have told CNN they disagreed with the President’s decision to name a Black woman to the court rather than judging a nominee squarely on their credentials, even though Ronald Reagan and Trump both said they’d name a female justice to the Supreme Court when they were on the campaign trail.

Even before Biden nominated Jackson, GOP senators and Senate candidates were already concluding that she’d be far left, throwing cold water on the names floated as being on Biden’s potential short list and calling for a slow confirmation process. Still, Republicans are limited in their ability to block a Supreme Court nominee, and Jackson may win the support of some GOP senators.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine all voted for Jackson last summer when she was confirmed as a circuit court judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the second most important court in the country.

Collins touted Jackson’s “impressive academic and legal credentials” following the announcement. But Graham, who had expressed support for Childs, suggested Jackson does not have his approval, saying in a tweet that the choice of Jackson “means the radical Left has won President Biden over yet again.” Graham added that he expects a “respectful but interesting hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called for a “rigorous, exhaustive” review of Jackson in a statement.

“I also understand Judge Jackson was “impressive academic and legal credentials the favored choice of far-left dark-money groups that have spent years attacking the legitimacy and structure of the Court itself,” McConnell said.

Ryan also congratulated Jackson.

“Janna and I are incredibly happy for Ketanji and her entire family. Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, and for her integrity, is unequivocal,” Ryan said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has indicated that he wants to push a nominee through the process quickly, using Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Senate proceedings as a model for Jackson’s confirmation timeline. And Sen. Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told CNN recently that he expects to have a hearing within a few weeks of the selection. The goal of the leadership is to have the nominee confirmed by the April 11 recess.

This story has been updated with additional developments, reaction and background information.

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President Biden nominates Ketanji Brown Jackson to be first Black woman to sit on Supreme Court