The U.S. Senate voted 53-47 on Thursday to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. She will be the first Black woman and first former public defender to serve on the country’s top court. While Jackson’s confirmation was a “monumental moment in United States history,” it was undercut by the “shameful spectacle” of Republican senators behaving disrespectfully toward Jackson, says law professor Michele Goodwin. The confirmation process remains broken more than three decades after Anita Hill faced hostile questioning, she adds.
AMY GOODMAN: In a historic vote Thursday, the Senate confirmed federal appeals Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, making her the first Black woman and first public defender to serve on the high court in its more than 230-year history. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to serve as vice president, presided over the vote as president of the Senate.
VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: On this vote, the yeas are 53, the nays are 47, and this nomination is confirmed.
AMY GOODMAN: Three Republican senators supported Jackson’s confirmation: Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney. The only Black Republican senator, Tim Scott, cast a “no” vote. The final vote was delayed when Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky remained noticeably absent. He eventually voted from the Senate’s cloakroom because he didn’t meet the Senate dress code of wearing a tie. In fact, he was reportedly wearing a windbreaker. Three other Republican senators also voted “no” from the cloakroom in casual attire: Jim Inhofe, Jerry Moran and Lindsey Graham, who was seen wearing a tie earlier in the day at a press conference but had changed into a polo shirt.
Judge Jackson’s confirmation followed four days of Senate hearings last month, when she described how her parents had faced racial segregation, and said her path was clearer now because of civil rights laws. Republicans used the confirmation hearings to raise issues that are not on the court’s docket, like critical race theory. They also questioned her sentencing record, including what they argued were light sentences she handed down in child pornography cases, that Democrats noted were in line with other judges.
Judge Jackson currently serves on the D.C. Court of Appeals and will be seated as the 116th justice on the Supreme Court this summer after Justice Stephen Breyer retires. Yes, again, for the first time in the court’s 232-year history, white men will soon be in the minority on the high court. The court’s balance of power will remain the same, with six justices appointed by Republicans and three by Democrats.
For more on Judge Jackson’s historic confirmation to become Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, we’re joined by Michele Goodwin, chancellor’s professor at the University of California, Irvine, founding director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy. She’s the host of the Ms. magazine podcast On the Issues with Michele Goodwin and author of Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood. She’s joining us from Boulder, Colorado.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Goodwin. First, your response to “herstory” being made?
MICHELE GOODWIN: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
This is a monumental moment in United States history. As you’ve just mentioned, in over 230 years, there has never been a Black woman on the court. Now, let’s be clear: There has never been any Indigenous people on the court or Asian people on the court. There have been only five women to serve on the United States Supreme Court. And let’s let that sink in. Of 115 justices — she will be the 116th — there have only been five. And, in fact, it’s been this U.S. Supreme Court that’s upheld laws that even forbade women from becoming attorneys. So this is history-making on so many different levels.
And there’s much more that we’ll unpack in terms of what she experienced during the confirmation hearings, but this is a moment to celebrate. But it’s also a moment in our history to think and reflect on Senate members of the Judiciary Committee, Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who are so deeply concerned about critical race history but made it themselves in their conduct, in contemporary conduct. No one needs to look at any books on critical race theory to look at the behavior of some of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and to question, based on that kind of behavior, whether that kind of history was also being made.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a Washington Post op-ed Thursday headlined “The Senate Judiciary Committee mistreated Judge Jackson. I should know.” Anita Hill wrote about how, during the confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, quote, “I was subjected to attacks on my intelligence, truthfulness and even my sanity when I testified about my experience working for the nominee at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”
Hill continued, quote, “In some ways, the committee has changed for the better since then: There are now four women on the panel and one Black member. … Even so, I was shocked by the interrogation of Jackson, a nominee with stellar credentials and more judicial experience than any of the sitting justices when they were nominated. It was obvious that no matter how composed, respectful or brilliant her responses, her critics’ only goal was to discredit her.”
Anita Hill went on to say, “It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to. The committee should adopt — and enforce — standards such as those that exist for taking testimony in federal court proceedings. Questions should be relevant and well-founded. Witness-badgering should not be tolerated.”
Can you respond to this? Again, those are the words of Anita Hill.
MICHELE GOODWIN: That’s right. So, we’re just coming off of about 30 years since professor Anita Hill offered witness testimony in the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, then-Judge Thomas, and was treated to a badgering, was treated to what some might call a flogging, for coming forward with information about sexual misconduct while a person was in office, Justice Thomas now. And many people, I think, could relate to what Anita Hill experienced, because in the aftermath of that, we saw more women running for Congress than ever before. I think that there was a kind of seething and loathing about what she experienced.
And I think we’ve seen that even now, because the polling has suggested that Judge Jackson is the most popular person to have been nominated and go through this confirmation process in more than a generation. I think the American people witnessed something that they found to be abhorrent. And to be clear, I’m not sure that there are new rules that are necessary — perhaps there really should be — in order for that kind of conduct to have been brought in line through the use of the gavel. It was a process that was supposed to be rigorous but not disrespectful. And really it demeaned the expectations and the professionalism of the Senate, of the Senate Judiciary Committee — and, yesterday, of the Senate itself, with members showing up casually and not being able to enter chambers.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is a really interesting point. People may have been wondered why I was talking about blue polo shirts and windbreakers. There’s a rule — right? — on the Senate floor that the men have to wear suits and ties. And so, if they don’t, they vote from the cloakroom. And so, you had Lindsey Graham, even Senator Paul, as they waited for him — what was it? — for almost half an hour, they just poked their head in, because they can’t step out onto the floor, and they do a thumbs down. Can you talk about what this means?
MICHELE GOODWIN: Well, I’m glad that you asked that question, Amy, because what we saw was spectacle. We saw spectacle in the confirmation hearings, and there was spectacle in the voting process. And to understand this, it’s worth thinking about this in historical context, because we’ve not necessarily seen historical interruption. If you think about it, there’s never been a time that’s been truly affirmative in United States history, that’s been that deep apology to Black women for the horrific treatment that they experienced during slavery, for that demeaning and awful experience that they had during Jim Crow, which is memorialized. As much as anybody wouldn’t want to read books on history now or race, it’s all been memorialized through video images of Jim Crow. And there’s never been that moment to stop and say, “My goodness, this was so horrific, and we owe deep, deep apologies for institutions carrying out segregation, racist behavior, discriminatory behavior, violent behavior.” The violence of lynching befell not only Black men, but black women, too, with people surrounding and having picnics and all of that. That’s U.S. history, the spectacle of beating Black women as they’re fighting for equal wages and to stop patterns of discrimination involving education and so forth. And the modern spectacle, we saw that even with a woman who graduated with honors from Harvard undergraduate, Harvard Law School, who clerked on all levels of the federal judiciary, still the spectacle continues.
But I think that there’s also something that the American public saw, which is that, in the past, when we saw this even through U.S. jurisprudence, the narrative was that Black people could never be qualified. Black people couldn’t even be qualified for citizenship. And what we saw was the falsity of that narrative about merit, that even with the most highly qualified Black woman, merit still goes out the window, and the conduct continues. And to be clear, that should be conduct that no one should be subjected to. But by seeing this happen to Judge Jackson, I think it really dispelled so many of the stereotypes about Black people deserving this kind of treatment, being undeserving of being elevated. One just couldn’t reconcile it, given the behavior that we saw, and also given her great poise and accomplishments.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, when the vote actually happened, and the first African American vice president presided as president of the Senate, Vice President Harris, the applause was overwhelming, a standing ovation by the Democrats and a few Republicans, like Romney at the back, but most of the Republicans walked out.
MICHELE GOODWIN: Well, it, too, is spectacle. And it’s such a shameful spectacle, because history records this. But let’s be clear: This is not the Republican Party that most people knew, even if people would have disagreed with certain Republican policies, let’s say, a decade or two decades ago. I remind people that Roe v. Wade, for example, was a 7-to-2 opinion, so not close, but five of those seven justices were Republican-appointed. Justice Blackmun, who wrote that opinion, was put on the court by Richard Nixon. Prescott Bush, the father of George H.W. Bush, was the treasurer of Planned Parenthood.
So what we see today is not what was the Republican Party. What we see today is a configuration, a group of people who now are identified as Republican but don’t even have the values of what Republicans had 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. They don’t have the voting records of what Republicans had. Republicans used to support reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, and there’s much more that we could get into with regard to that. So, what we’re seeing today is something that I think Republicans 20 years ago would call shameful.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, in fact, when RBG, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had her confirmation hearing, she talked extensively about her support for abortion. She got into it with Utah Senator Hatch, who was very much against abortion.
MICHELE GOODWIN: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: I think, ultimately, I mean, she was overwhelmingly voted for, I think including Hatch.
MICHELE GOODWIN: That’s absolutely right. And, in fact, one of the things that’s so disappointing about these confirmation hearings is that when you look at that record — and I have the C-SPAN videos, the transcripts — of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her confirmation hearings, they were terrific. They were modeled. They were rigorous. But there was the opportunity for us to learn more about her, to learn about how her practice experience, for example, influenced how she would become a justice, who were the people that she admired on the Supreme Court, what her personal life had been and how that also shaped who she was as a judge. She was able to talk about her work at the ACLU, for example. She was able to talk about how, as a judge, she’d regularly visit the Washington, D.C., jails and actually took her clerks there and explained she never wanted to be far removed from the experiences of average Americans who ended up in the criminal justice system. She talked about how much she admired Justice Thurgood Marshall and Justice Brennan. All of that came out brilliantly, beautifully. I mean, it was terrific to observe as Americans.
We didn’t get that opportunity with Judge Jackson at all. And it was a shame, given her brilliance, given the fact that she will be the first person who had worked as a public defender, a federal defender, to serve on the United States Supreme Court. And we just really didn’t get this opportunity, that would have been a benefit for all Americans to hear about, including coming from the American South and what that must have meant to her family, more than being the first African American woman in this position, but just simply what it really means to have grown up in the South, for her parents, and what that means in thinking about justice in the United States.