How Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson could reshape the nation’s highest court

President Biden's nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court is a landmark moment for Black women across the legal field, who throughout American history have made up less than 2 percent of the federal bench. Margaret Russell, of the Santa Clara University Law School, and Marcia Coyle, of the National Law Journal, join Lisa Desjardins to discuss Jackson's nomination.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a landmark moment for Black women across the legal field, who, throughout American history, have made up less than 2 percent of the federal bench.

    Lisa Desjardins has more on the historical significance and how Judge Jackson could reshape the nation's highest court.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Joining me now to discuss this nomination is Professor Margaret Russell of Santa Clara University's School of Law and longtime friend of the "NewsHour" Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal."

    Marcia, let me start with you.

    What do you think this means? How would Judge Jackson fit in with or maybe change this current court?

    Marcia Coyle, "The National Law Journal": Well, I think, Lisa, first, we have to realize that she will not change the ideological divide on the court. It will still be a 6-3 conservative majority.

    But that doesn't mean she can't be influential in several ways. First of all, she is the only one on the court who has been a federal public defender. She has seen a side of the criminal justice system that none of the other justices have experienced.

    So, when they go into their private conferences, she can bring that to the table if the case before them is relevant. It not only is her experience, but she can share that experience with the others and perhaps influence what they decide in some way.

    The other way she can have influence is, she is only the second justice on the current court to have been a trial judge. Justice Sotomayor is the only other one. And, believe me, they bring a unique perspective as well to the court. They know how trials operate. They though what lawyers do in those trials.

    And the court often has cases about trial practices and what lawyers do or don't do during those trials.

    And, finally, I think her dissents. Dissents can become majority opinions. And, also, they can be influential in lower courts, as they try to get — decide cases and perhaps move cases up to the Supreme Court. So I think she brings all of those qualities and life experiences to bear when she sits on the Supreme Court, if she is confirmed.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Margaret Russell, this is a historic nomination, as the president and others, everyone points out.

    What does this mean to you? But, also, what do you think this means for the Supreme Court?

  • Margaret Russell:

    This is a tremendously historic and significant day, not just for me, but I see it as in the history of this nation, in the history of the Supreme Court.

    For African American women in the legal profession, it has been a long uphill battle. That is also true of other groups. But the significance of Judge Jackson's ascendancy to a court that, when it first sat in 1790, had all white men, of course, six white men, and did not have a Black member of the court until the 1960s and a female member of the court until the 1980s, should really be cause for reflection, not just sort of a recitative regurgitation of facts.

    But what it means is that there is a history of exclusion in the legal profession and a history of exclusion among people who actually decide the fate of millions and millions of Americans, including African Americans.

    So, I think it's extremely significant.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Of course, even before we knew who the nominee was to be, Republicans criticized how the president went about this. They criticized that he was pledging to nominate a Black woman, as something that they said was not substantive and smacked of a quota system.

    I wonder what you make of that?

  • Margaret Russell:

    Well, I would say that, in talking about it, it's important to remember that there were no Black members of the court until the late 1960s, with Thurgood Marshall, and there were no female members.

    So, criticizing Biden for making a point about race doesn't mean that all of those other decisions did not involve racial identity. They did, racial identity and gender identity.

    I hope that it's seen as a step forward for the nation, not just based on political party, because what it means is that President Biden, who had previously been chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and is a lawyer himself, knows his facts. It meant that, when he made that promise, he knew that there was already a pool of talent that could yield exceptionally well-qualified people to be on the United States Supreme Court.

    Second, when he became president, he made sure that there were — was an ample pool on the federal bench, and beginning with the district court and then with the court of appeals, so that no one could say that it — that it was nonsubstantive. It is a substantive decision to recognize that African American women in the legal profession have grown enormously.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Marcia, now that we know Judge Jackson is the nominee, we also are getting an idea of maybe some Republican criticism ahead, this from Senator McConnell today, the Republican leader of the Senate.

    He said: "Jackson is the choice of far left dark money groups."

    Now, that's political, of course, not substantive. We're talking about what's substantive, what's not.

    Marcia, this comes after two very tense and political Supreme Court nomination fights. Just to wrap up this, can you help us with what you think is ahead in this process? What dynamics do you see?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, it's on the flip side of what we saw with the last couple of Republican nominations. Certainly, Democrats accused Republican nominees of being supported by dark money groups.

    But trying to stay focused on Judge Jackson and what may be ahead, she was confirmed in June by the U.S. Senate. And she had three Republican supports. And it's true that a confirmation to a federal appellate court is different than a confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    But there really wasn't a whole lot to try to block her with when she went before the Senate in June. And she has been confirmed three times by the U.S. Senate, Sentencing Commission, federal district court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

    And, so far, there has been nothing major to stop her from moving forward. So, I guess what I'm saying is, we're just going to have to wait and see how this — I think it was Senator Arlen Specter who called it a Kabuki dance actually plays out in the next couple of weeks.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right, next few weeks, Democrats hoping to get this nomination through by the first weeks of April.

    Marcia Coyle and Margaret Russell, thank you both very much.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Always a pleasure Lisa.

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