Ketanji Brown Jackson made history in 2022 when she became the first Black woman US Supreme Court justice.
It often takes new justices some time to settle in, but Jackson has already made her mark.
“I mean, she’s really off to a running start,” said Cardozo School of Law professor Kate Shaw. “She’s been a powerful force at oral argument.” As the justices prepare to issue opinions in argued cases during their second half of the term, Shaw said she’s eager to see whether that’s reflected in Jackson’s writing.
“She has a distinct voice already from the bench in her kind of mode as questioner, so I’m actually expecting to see a pretty distinct voice on the page when we begin to see merits opinions coming from her,” Shaw said.
Here’s a look at Jackson’s most notable moments so far.
‘We’ve Made It’
After a contentious set of hearings that centered on gender and race, Jackson celebrated her 53-47 confirmation vote on April 8 with a ceremony in the Rose Garden.
“I am the dream and the hope of a slave,” Jackson said, quoting the writer and poet Maya Angelou in her remarks. She was flanked by President Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the nation’s first Black women to serve as vice president.
“We’ve made it,” Jackson said.
She was sworn in June 30, following Justice Stephen Breyer’s official retirement.
Jackson’s first Supreme Court arguments came in an administrative law case Oct. 3, where her time in the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit prepared her particularly well.
She intervened early at argument over whether the EPA has the authority to regulate certain wetlands.
“You say the question is which wetlands are covered, which I agree with, but I guess my question is, why would Congress draw the coverage line between abutting wetlands and neighboring wetlands when the objective of the statute is to ensure the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters?” Jackson asked the attorney challenging the agency’s authority.
Jackson remained an active questioner throughout the court’s first two-week argument sitting. She spoke more than twice as much as the second-most talkative justice—Sonia Sotomayor—and nearly 6.5 times as the least talkative—Clarence Thomas—according to Empirical SCOTUS creator Adam Feldman.
Jackson’s argument questions were substantive.
In particular, the justices embraced a doctrine known as originalism that’s traditionally associated with conservative views on the original meaning of the Constitution.
The “framers themselves adopted the equal protection clause” reflected in the 14th and 15th amendments “in a race conscious way,” Jackson said in an early voting rights challenge that argued redistricting must be done in a race-blind manner.
She and her two fellow liberal colleagues similarly wielded the history of the post-Civil War Reconstruction amendments aimed at protecting civil rights in arguments over the use of affirmative action in higher education.
As a member of the court’s minority wing, it’s not surprising that Jackson’s first written Supreme Court opinion was a dissent. She wrote separately to disagree with the majority’s decision not to review the standard for evaluating certain evidence claims on appeal in an Ohio murder case.
Because the death-row inmate’s “life is on the line” and suppressed records would’ve likely changed the outcome of his trial, Jackson said she would’ve ruled for the him and reversed the lower court’s decision to ensure the Sixth Circuit used the proper standard.
Joined by Sonia Sotomayor, the pair is likely to feature together often in death penalty and other criminal cases.
Jackson also formed an unusual alliance with conservative Neil Gorsuch on Dec. 27, signing onto his dissent that criticized a decision leaving in place a Trump-era immigration policy prompted by the pandemic. The court’s five other conservatives made up the majority while Jackson’s fellow liberals, Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, rounded out the minority vote but didn’t join the dissent.
Before the court kicked off Jackson’s first term in October, she posed for a photoshoot with Vogue—and the magazine spread created controversy.
Released in August, the photos were criticized on Twitter for being too dark and for having been taken by a white photographer instead of someone of color. Commentators said the two photographs of Jackson at the Lincoln Memorial failed to illuminate her skin properly.
“Please consult other professionals to learn how to photograph Black people,” Deva Woodley, an associate professor at The New School For Social Research, said in a reply tweet after Vogue photographer Annie Leibovitz posted the photos to Twitter.
Criticism also came from conservatives upset with the magazine that Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn’t get a similar opportunity when she was confirmed to the bench in 2020.
—With assistance from Madison Alder.
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