The Senate on Monday confirmed the first appellate court judge of President Joe Biden’s tenure, elevating a judge with strong prospects of landing on the president's short list should a Supreme Court vacancy arise.
Senators voted 53-44 to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the nation’s second most powerful court. She replaces Merrick Garland, who vacated the seat to become Biden's attorney general.
Biden has promised to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court and many view Jackson as a leading contender. She has written nearly 600 opinions as a district judge in Washington, worked as a federal public defender and served as vice chair on the commission that sets the guidelines judges consult when sentencing federal offenders.
The White House has sought to emphasize diversity in background, race and gender with his first batch of judicial nominations. Last week, the Senate confirmed the nation’s first federal Muslim judge, Zahid Quraishi, to serve as a district court judge in New Jersey. Quraishi’s first day on the job at a New York law firm was Sept. 11, 2001. He would go on to join the Army’s legal arm and served two deployments in Iraq.
The Senate has also confirmed Regina Rodriguez as a district judge in Colorado and Julien Neals as a district judge in New Jersey.
Democrats are mindful that former President Donald Trump and a Republican-led Senate installed more than 230 judges on the federal bench, including the three newest Supreme Court justices, with assembly line precision. They’re focused on giving Biden some early victories as they mount their own effort to shape the courts.
“Women, especially women of color, have long been underrepresented on the federal bench,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Along with President Biden, the Senate Democratic majority is working quickly to close the gap."
The Senate voted last week to end debate and bring Jackson’s nomination to the floor. Three Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined that effort. The three were also the only Republicans to vote for her confirmation on Monday.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that nominations to the District of Columbia-based circuit court are often controversial because the stakes are so high, with most cases involving the federal government coming before the court. Durbin said it was noteworthy that Jackson received the support of some Republicans on the committee.
“The importance of the circuit cannot be overstated," Durbin said.
Two Republicans, Graham and John Cornyn of Texas, voted with Democrats in advancing her nomination out of the committee by a vote of 13-9. Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican from Iowa, voted no, saying that he was not satisfied Jackson would “adhere to the Constitution as originally understood.”
Jackson graduated from Harvard Law School and served as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. In 2005, she began work as an assistant federal public defender in Washington. She joined a private firm in 2007 and then served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission beginning in 2010. President Barack Obama nominated her to serve as a federal district judge in 2012, and the Senate confirmed her the following year.
In one of her most high-profile decisions, she ordered former White House counsel Don McGahn to appear before Congress in a setback to Trump’s effort to keep his top aides from testifying.
Groups supporting her confirmation have cited the need to bring more racial diversity to the federal judiciary.
“Since the establishment of the judiciary, there have only ever been eight Black women to serve on the federal appellate branch,” the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund told senators in a letter supporting Jackson. “Such disparities undermine the legitimacy and integrity of the judicial system.”
She also exemplifies a push by Biden to nominate more judges with experience representing lower-income people.
“Our judiciary has been dominated by former corporate lawyers and prosecutors for too long, and Judge Jackson’s experience as a public defender makes her a model for the type of judge President Biden and Senate Democrats should continue to prioritize,” said Christopher Kang, chief counsel for Demand Justice, a liberal advocacy group.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made filling judicial vacancies a top priority when Republicans controlled the chamber, including confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court just days before the presidential election.
However, Republicans blocked Obama from filling a vacancy during his final year in office. McConnell reiterated in an interview Monday that he would follow that path again in 2024 if Republicans were to retake control of the Senate and Biden sought to fill an opening on the Supreme Court.
“I don’t think either party if it controlled, if it were different from the president, would confirm a Supreme Court nominee in the middle of an election," McConnell said on the Hugh Hewitt Show.