Biden to pick Ketanji Brown Jackson as first black woman on Supreme Court

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was picked to succeed retiring liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who is the court's oldest member. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Joe Biden has selected federal appellate judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the first black woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court, the White House said on Friday (Feb 25), setting the stage for a confirmation battle in the closely divided Senate.

Mr Biden picked Ms Jackson, 51, for the lifetime job on the nation's top judicial body to succeed retiring liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who at 83 is the court's oldest member.

Of the 115 people who have ever served on the Supreme Court, only two have been black and both were men.

The timing of Mr Biden's announcement had been in flux because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"President Biden sought a candidate with exceptional credentials, unimpeachable character and unwavering dedication to the rule of law," the White House said in a statement.

"He also sought a nominee - much like Justice Breyer - who is wise, pragmatic and has a deep understanding of the Constitution as an enduring charter of liberty," the White House said of Mr Biden's selection process.

"And the President sought an individual who is committed to equal justice under the law and who understands the profound impact that the Supreme Court's decisions have on the lives of the American people."

Ms Jackson, if confirmed by the Senate, would become the sixth woman ever to serve on the court, which currently has three female justices. She would join the liberal bloc on an increasingly assertive court that has a 6-3 conservative majority including three justices appointed by Mr Biden's predecessor Donald Trump.

Other contenders for the nomination were Ms J. Michelle Childs, a district court judge in South Carolina and Ms Leondra Kruger, a justice on the California Supreme Court.

The Senate voted 53-44 last year to confirm Ms Jackson after Mr Biden nominated her to the influential US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, with three Republican senators backing her.

At Ms Jackson's confirmation hearing last year, Republicans questioned her on whether race plays a role in her approach to deciding cases. She said it did not.

The Senate previously confirmed her as a federal district judge, a job she held for eight years.

Ms Jackson, who was raised in Miami and attended Harvard Law School, has a varied legal resume including earlier in her career representing criminal defendants who could not afford a lawyer.

She was part of a three-judge panel that ruled in December against Republican former President Donald Trump's bid to prevent White House records from being handed over to a congressional panel investigating last year's Capitol attack.

Democrats are eager to move forward with the confirmation process while they control the Senate.

Mr Breyer, who has served since 1994, announced in January his intention to step down when the court's completes its current term, likely by the end of June.

While Mr Biden's appointee will not change the court's ideological balance - Ms Jackson would be replacing a fellow liberal - her addition does enable Mr Biden to refresh its liberal wing with a much younger jurist who could serve for decades, just as Mr Trump's three relatively young appointees are in a position to do.

The nomination also gives Mr Biden a chance to shore up political support among women, minorities and liberals ahead of the Nov 8 midterm elections in which Democrats are fighting to retain control of both chambers of Congress.

Mr Biden's strength among suburban women, seen as a key reason for his victory over Mr Trump, has eroded since taking office last year, worrying his political aides.

Confirmation process

The Senate confirmation process includes hearings before the Judiciary Committee, whose chairman is Democrat Dick Durbin and whose top Republican is Chuck Grassley.

Democrats control the evenly split 100-member Senate because of the ability of Vice-President Kamala Harris to break a tie.

Mr Biden made history in 2020 when he made Harris the first black vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket.

US President Joe Biden made history in 2020 when he made US Vice-President Kamala Harris the first black vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Biden, a former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, studied the case records of the candidates he was considering and consulted legal experts, the White House said.

Illustrating the precarious nature of the Democrats' control of the Senate, they currently lack a working majority after Democratic Senator Ben Ray Lujan had a stroke. He is expected to recover in time to vote on the nomination.

Due to a rules change spearheaded by Republicans to ease the confirmation of Mr Trump's first nominee Mr Neil Gorsuch in 2017 amid Democratic opposition, only a simple Senate majority vote is needed to confirm Mr Biden's pick.

Democrats have said they plan to move Mr Biden's nomination on a quick timetable, similar to the single month that Republicans used for Mr Trump's third appointee Justice Amy Coney Barrett in 2020.

The White House has signalled it will fight back vigorously against Republican attempts to discredit the nominee. Some Republicans have accused Mr Biden of discrimination for pledging to name a black woman to the post without considering any men or non-black women. Mr Biden said on January a black woman serving on the Supreme Court was long overdue.

The Supreme Court continues to play an integral role in American life and has moved rightward, thanks to Mr Trump's three appointees.

It is due to rule in the coming months on cases that could curb abortion rights and expand gun rights.

In its term beginning next October, the court is due to hear cases concerning race issues that could end affirmative action policies used by colleges and universities to increase the number of black and hispanic students.

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