How Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Nomination Is Balancing the Scales of Justice

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson would make history as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court—not because others like her were never qualified before, but because the system was not built for us.

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Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during a meeting with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) on Capitol Hill on March 31, 2022. Judge Jackson met with Senate members on Capitol Hill ahead of her confirmation vote. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Last week, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson went through her first confirmation hearings with the Senate Judiciary Committee as the first Black woman nominated to serve on the Supreme Court in its 232-year history. A series of final votes are likely to culminate this week. This is a huge moment for a community that has helped to build this country, kept it running and yet seen too little power throughout history.

We should—and will—celebrate the history that this nominee will make and what it means to finally be represented in the highest halls of power. But even with Jackson’s historic nomination, the celebration and incredible endorsements that have ensued, it remains likely that some Republicans will unfairly and disproportionately call her qualifications into question, solely because of her race and gender.

Let’s be clear: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was chosen through a thorough and rigorous process and she meets every metric by which you could judge qualifications. Having worked in nearly every part of the legal system, she is perhaps the most well-rounded nominee ever, and is one of the country’s brightest legal minds. She is impeccably qualified and has the character, the intellect and the experience to be a fantastic Supreme Court justice.

But we also know that by promising to nominate a member of a historically underrepresented group, there are people who will assume that President Biden did not make his choice based on qualifications. It’s possible these same people would never believe that a Black woman could be qualified to serve, no matter how she was nominated or who nominated her. We can’t ignore the sexist and racist assumptions that exist—we certainly heard enough of that commentary when President Obama nominated Justice Sonia Sotomayor to serve.

Unfortunately, there’s another group of people who are turned off by Biden’s decision to search for and name a Black woman nominee. As the leader of an organization aimed at electing Democratic pro-choice women, it’s an argument I’ve heard before. What we’re hearing right now is the same thing we hear every day about our candidates and our work. When we suggest that we should elect more women, there’s always a crowd of people who note that we should just elect the most qualified people.

What those people fail to understand is that we are doing both. We are breaking ground and making history with qualified women ready and able to do great work in power.

This is a country that has been governed and led overwhelmingly by straight white men. It goes beyond the presidency and reaches into every facet of government. And it’s not because there have been no qualified women or candidates of color or LGBTQ+ candidates for these seats. It’s because the system was not built for us.

When we suggest that we should elect more women, there’s always a crowd of people who note that we should just elect the most qualified people. What those people fail to understand is that we are doing both. We are breaking ground and making history with qualified women ready and able to do great work in power.

I know how easy it is for people to dismiss the qualifications of women simply because we’ve never seen women in certain positions of power. I know that this work takes dedication and effort, not because we’re giving unfair advantage to candidates who don’t deserve it. It’s because those accomplished candidates must face greater barriers, like sexism, for some racism, and doubts and double standards because they do not fit the historic mold for leadership in this country.

If confirmed, Jackson will ultimately shift the racial and gender makeup of the court. It’s a good start, but there are still so many communities who have never seen themselves in these seats of power. Lifting up underrepresented people makes sure that our government better speaks for all of us, has an understanding of our lives and can make a difference within it. Being intentional in this work doesn’t undermine qualifications—it ensures that those qualifications are seen and valued.

In short, supporting and celebrating a historic first is not about putting our thumb on the scale unfairly. It is creating the blindfold that allows candidates to be judged on their qualifications without the challenges that have unjustly prevented others like them from reaching the same goals.

It is this balancing of the scale, not an unfair tilt, that has ensured that the pool of impeccably qualified Black women is being considered for this job, rather than passed over once again. And as we await Jackson’s confirmation, we are ready to celebrate both the history and the experience she will bring to the Court.

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About

Laphonza Butler is the president of EMILY’s List. The mission of EMILY’s List is to elect Democratic pro-choice women up and down the ballot across the country.