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How will Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson influence the Supreme Court?

U.S. President Joe Biden congratulates Ketanji Brown Jackson moments after the U.S. Senate confirmed her to be the first Black woman to be a justice on the Supreme Court in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ketanji Brown Jackson is headed to the Supreme Court of the United States. 

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, Mitt Romney, of Utah and Susan Collins, of Maine voted to confirm her, giving the Democrats some cushion on the final vote, which came down shortly after 2 p.m. on Thursday. The final tally was 53-47. 

Jackson, who will be leaving her post as a judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, is the first Black woman to sit on the High Court. The milestone is an important one for the Supreme Court, says Martha F. Davis, university distinguished professor of law at Northeastern, who teaches constitutional law and human-rights advocacy.

To the extent that there has been an African American voice on the bench, it’s been Clarence Thomas, who in some ways has been an outlier in his general orientation” toward cases involving civil rights questions, Davis says. 

Portraits of Distinguished Professor of Law Martha Davis, and Daniel Urman, Director of hybrid and online programs in the School of Law, and director of the Law and Public Policy minor. Courtesy Photo and Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Gender and racial diversity matter in deciding cases, Davis says, adding that data shows that judges from different backgrounds and who inhabit different identities rule differently on certain issues than white, male judges. For example, women are 15% more likely to side with the claimant in cases involving sexual discrimination than men, according to Business Insider

Jackson’s record as a district judge in Washington indicates that she would bring a liberal lens and experience as a public defender (a first for the High Court) to the bench. In an era where prospective justices are publicly vetted on certain high-profile issues—such as abortion and gun rights—legal analysts already have some sense of how she might rule on those hot-button issues, Davis says. 

But it’s harder to forecast how her deep knowledge of the criminal justice system will interplay with her thinking on broader constitutional questions. Supreme Court decision-making has historically played out through private conversations, compromises, and (sometimes) sudden ideological turnabouts, Davis says. 

“Jackson clerked for Justice [Stephen] Breyer, and Breyer would sometimes join with some of the conservatives,” Davis says. “It’s a lifetime appointment. And there’s no obligation to be consistent, in how you vote, with the things you have said in the past.” 

Much has been written about how Jackson’s family ties to law enforcement, as well as her uncle’s cocaine conviction and subsequent life sentence, have informed her sentencing decisions during her tenure on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Those decisions were the subject of much debate and discussion during the Senate hearings, with Republicans attempting to paint her as soft on crime. 

But Republican questioning during the hearing at times veered into “political talking points,” says Dan Urman, who teaches constitutional law and the modern U.S. Supreme Court at Northeastern. 

“Jackson’s composure during the harsh questioning demonstrated her unflappability,” Urman says. “She answered calmly and clearly. Those skills will serve her well on the court.”

“Being a ‘first’ is always historically important for symbolic and substantive reasons,” Urman adds. 

For example, Urman pointed to the influence Justice Thurgood Marshall—the court’s first Black justice—had on Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—the first woman on the bench. O’Connor famously said that her colleague’s experiences were “a source of amazement and inspiration.” 

“I have not encountered prejudice on a sustained basis,” O’Connor wrote Marshall. “But I have experienced gender discrimination enough, such as when law firms would only hire me, a ‘lady lawyer,’ as a legal secretary, to understand how one could seek to minimize interaction with those who are intolerant of difference. That Justice Marshall never hid from prejudice but thrust himself, instead, into its midst has been both an encouragement and a challenge to me.” 

Urman posited that Jackson could have a similar influence among her peers during their various interactions. 

“Justice Marshall had a huge impact on fellow Justices during their private meetings,” he says. “I could see Justice Jackson having a similar effect on some of her colleagues.”

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