Ketanji Brown Jackson Becomes the First Black Woman to Serve on the Highest Court

The Justice started her service with a 14th Amendment case


From Fred Schilling / Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Ketanji Brown Jackson with President Biden and VIce President Harris

Emma Logue, Staff Writer

On June 20, Ketanji Brown Jackson took the Constitutional and Judicial Oath. She is the newest Supreme Court Justice, replacing Justice Stephen Breyer. Jackson is the first Black Woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

Jackson attended Harvard Law School. This isn’t her first time working in the Supreme Court; she used to be a clerk for the Justice she replaced. She also served on the US Court of Appeals in the D.C. circuit.

Ketanji Brown Jackson began hearing her first cases as a Supreme Court Justice the first week of October. NBCnews reported that on Jackson’s second day, she heard a case dealing with weakening the Voting Rights Act.

The case was Merrill v. Milligan, a case deciding if Alabama’s new congressional map was discriminatory against Black voters. The Guardian explains the case as “dispute over the seven congressional districts Alabama drew last year. Only one of those districts has a majority-Black population, even though Black people make up a quarter of Alabama’s population.”

This case is very important as it will display the court’s stance on the Voting Rights Act while a 6-3 conservative majority serves. 

Ketanji Brown Jackson let her presence be known, asking Alabama’s solicitor general why being conscious and concerned about race was a problem under the Voting Rights Act (14th amendment). 

Jackson explained how the 14th amendment was created to protect Black citizens after the Civil War. Jackson stated, “I don’t think we can assume that just because race is taken into account that that necessarily creates an equal protection problem.” 

NBC news quotes prominent civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill praise of Jackson’s debut: “Her tone is upbeat and respectful, but she is tough, no nonsense and demanding. This was as impressive a debut as I’ve seen of a new justice in my more than 30 years of court-watching.” 

A recent New York Times article covered Jackson’s debut in the court, and shows the amount of words spoken by each new justice within their first eight articles.

As seen in the graph, Jackson has asked many more questions and made more statements than other new justices.

Adam Liptak gives possible reasoning for why Jackson speaks more than colleagues: “When the justices meet at their private conferences to vote on cases after arguments, they speak in order of seniority, with Jackson going last…The points she makes from the bench at least have a fighting chance of making an impact.”

The Guardian details Jackson’s productive questions in her first case, Sackett v. EPA, an environmental case dealing with the Clean Water Act. Jackson pressed lawyer Damien Schiff, asking why Congress needed to make distinctions when the act is to protect all of the nation’s waters. 

The Guardian also adds Mark Stern’s quote from Slate explaining the clear difference between Jackson and Stephen Breyer, who she replaced: “Breyer had a habit of bringing arguments to a standstill with endless, convoluted questions that failed to move the needle. So far with Jackson, there’s no self-indulgent wheel-spinning, just rapid-fire questions that cut to the heart of the case.”

Many sources also mentioned how Jackson’s use of originalism was a special approach to the case. University of Michigan law professor Leah Litman states: “It was just a really frontal challenge to the narrative that the court has spun without really engaging with the relevant history. To have her do so so evocatively and clearly was just quite striking.”

Originalism is typically a conservative strategy that the New York Times defines as “an approach that seeks to interpret the Constitution as it was understood at the time it was adopted.” 

Jackson’s addition to the court has impressed many. One only needs to read her statements and see her confidence is clear. She is a firm justice, not afraid to speak when she sees fit or see her recent addition to the court as a reason to stay quiet. Everything points to her being an excellent justice for many years.