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An ISU professor says Justice Jackson has proven her qualifications for the Supreme Court

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson defends her record during questioning from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
Chip Somodevilla
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Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson defends her record during questioning from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.

The confirmation Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court marks an historic first. Jackson will be the first Black woman to serve on the court in its 233-year history, replacing the retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, who was one of 108 white men to precede her.

Jackson’s confirmation also marks the fulfillment of a campaign promise made by President Joe Biden, whose pledge to appoint the first Black woman to the nation’s highest court drew some accusations of affirmative action. Republican Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in February that "the idea that race and gender should be the number 1 and number 2 criteria is not as it should be."

Meghan Leonard, a professor of political science at Illinois State University, said Jackson’s confirmation should put those criticisms to rest. Leonard said throughout the hearings, Jackson made clear that she is “absolutely qualified.”

“It really hit home the point that there are qualified Black women, and the misunderstanding with affirmative action is it leads to lower qualifications, or people not being selected because of merit,” Leonard said. Irrespective of Biden’s campaign promise, “Justice Jackson would have been on any short list for any Democrat,” Leonard said.

Despite her qualifications, Jackson was subject to a contentious confirmation process. The same could be said for her two immediate predecessors, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. The partisan nature of the hearings points to an increasing politicization of the appointment process for Supreme Court Justices. But as a Black woman, Jackson navigated what Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia, called the “double jeopardy of racism and sexism.”

“I think a lot of it was at times really disgusting,” Leonard said of Jackson’s confirmation hearings. “And it absolutely had everything to do with her gender, with her race, with her position as a public defender.”

Jackson worked as a federal public defender from 2007-2009. That drew some questions from Republican senators who suggested Jackson might be soft on criminals. Leonard found those criticisms to be particularly problematic.

“Having the right to a defense attorney is such a core constitutional concept that it was surprising to me that that was the direction that some people went,” Leonard said. Jackson will be the first Justice to bring experience in public defense to the Supreme Court. Leonard said that adds valuable perspective and “hopefully new support for the rights of the accused.”

Jackson’s confirmation won’t shift the ideological makeup of the court. She’ll join Elena Kagen and Sonia Sotomayor in the court’s minority liberal wing. The court’s more conservative justices will retain a supermajority, meaning Jackson appointment won’t tip the existing balance. But Leonard said that doesn’t mean Jackson won’t have an impact — even if it will mostly be felt through her dissenting opinions.

“We see this with Justice Sotomayor talking about race and racism in her dissents, talking about the rights of women in her dissents, and certainly the more of that lived experience of being a woman of color that gets into the record,” said Leonard, adding — like Sotomayo —, Jackson will bring a perspective and lived experience to the court that has historically been lacking.

And Leonard sees that as a gain no matter how the present court is likely to rule.

“The more people read about it, the more they're exposed to it. And just having that information out there can move the law forward,” Leonard said.

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