Monday, November 28

The Long Arc of Ketanji Brown Jackson

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 21.


Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

This week’s Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson might seem like a low-stakes affair. She’d replace a fellow liberal, retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, so her elevation of her would n’t alter the Court’s current 6-3 conservative majority. Yet the arc of a Justice Jackson’s jurisprudence could be long.

A jarring reminder of the stakes came Sunday when the Supreme Court issued a short notice that Justice Clarence Thomas had been hospitalized with “flu-like symptoms.” He received intravenous antibiotics and was improving, though he missed Monday’s oral arguments. We wish Justice Thomas a speedy return to health, not only as a public official with whom we often agree, but also as a husband, father and a comrade in human frailty.

The coincidental timing underlines the gravity of each Supreme Court confirmation. A Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson could be to the left of Justice Breyer, depending on the question. It’s difficult to know. Her judicial record of her is thin, and Senate confirmation hearings in recent decades have turned into a rhetorical dance in which the nominee tries to look affable and responsive while saying nothing.

But Senate Republicans owe it to the public to be ready on Tuesday with direct questions for Judge Jackson about her views and judicial philosophy. They shouldn’t be complacent about the Supreme Court’s makeup today. Once Justice Breyer steps down, the Court’s elders will be two conservatives, Justices Thomas (age 73) and Samuel Alito (71). Who’s to say they’ll be succeeded by like-minded jurists? Democrats talk like the GOP has locked up the Court for all time, but majorities are precarious in anything but the short run.

Judge Jackson is 51 years old. If she joins the Supreme Court and then retires at the same age as Justice Breyer, it would be in 2054. That is plenty of time for anything to happen. Senators should evaluate Judge Jackson as if she is going to be the swing vote, writing controversial 5-4 majority opinions. Someday not too distant, she might be.

Main Street: In these highlights from a “Library of Congress” interview with Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court Justice talks about victimhood, the confirmation process and why he writes so many opinions. Images: AP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared on March 22, 2022, print edition.


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