Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and the Future of the Supreme Court
by: Cole Breen
On Thursday, April 7th, Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson was confirmed by a vote of 53-47 as the 116th justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Following the formal retirement of Judge Stephen Breyer this summer, Jackson will become the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Judge Jackson's ascension will go a long way in helping the court, and, in Pres. Biden's view, "look more like America." While Jackson's role will be nothing if not historic, her presence won't change the ideological balance of what is otherwise a conservative-leaning court.
With the current balance of 6-3 favoring the more conservative judges, Jackson won't impact the balance any time soon. You know for an institution with lifetime terms, there's been an awful lot of turnover amongst the judges in the past five or 10 years. We've seen almost a complete change in the court's identity in a short period of time. This is to be expected with the passing or retirement of a judge, but not at this level. Former Presidents Obama and Trump selected five of the current nine judges. With Biden's 6th, the oldest remaining member on the court is now Judge Clarence Thomas of 73 years. The court is changing and evolving, there's no doubt about that. But is that a good thing? Arguably, in some ways no.
In my view, the Supreme Court is becoming more and more partisan which is exactly what it is designed and intended not to be. With the almost overwhelming conservative majority brought on by the Trump administration, the balance of the court has shifted to the right, forcing Democrats to take any opportunity to rush a nomination of a liberal judge. In their desperation, both sides have opted to choose nominees that fall in line with their partisan politics. The Supreme Court was designed to rule on matters of the law, not matters of public opinion or partisanship. The Republican party managed to unintentionally pack the court with a group of men who ushered in the age of partisanship for the Supreme Court. It would be a mistake to blame this on the Trump administration when this has been a decades-long trend.
In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously announced a plan to expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 judges, in an alleged attempt to make the court more "efficient." The important context behind this move was that the Supreme Court had recently been striking down important pieces of Roosevelt's broader New Deal legislation. The court struck some of this legislation down because they argued that the laws delegated an unconstitutional amount of authority to the executive branch and the federal government. According to History.com, "Flushed with his landslide reelection in 1936, President Roosevelt issued a proposal in February 1937 to provide retirement at full pay for all members of the court over 70. If a justice refused to retire, an 'assistant' [more accurately a new judge] with full voting rights was to be appointed, thus ensuring Roosevelt a liberal majority." Republicans and Democrats alike sharply criticized FDR's plan as "court-packing," a term which is often brought up today when referencing the recent efforts by both Republicans and liberal activists alike to describe each other's efforts to pack the court in their ideological (or partisan) favor. While Roosevelt's supposed efforts to pack the court in favor of his New Deal seemed and still seem authoritarian, there was important context behind the plan. You have to understand that our nation was in the midst of the worst economic crisis it had ever faced. President Roosevelt was willing to try quite literally anything and everything to rectify the situation. It was not so much authoritarianism as it was pragmatism to him.
So how will Judge Jackson fit into this trend of partisanship? I don't think I can give you a straight answer just yet. It's far too early to tell how Jackson may fit into this dynamic. She isn't technically a Supreme Court Justice just yet. While I do like to stray away from putting my blatant opinions into my articles, I think it would be a positive for the court if it were to be more ideologically balanced instead of a clear conservative majority like the one we have now. It would help the institution stay away from the partisan politics it fought so hard to separate itself from in the first place. Much like her predecessor Judge Stephen Breyer, Jackson is moderately liberal in her rulings and political views, further reinforcing the notion that she won't shake up the ideological balance of the court too much. However, she may be the first in a series of judges to turn the tide against the kind of toxic partisanism we are seeing infecting the court. Regardless, Jackson is an extremely well-qualified judge and will serve this country well. Especially with her experience in criminal defense and her former role as a public defender. She is a well-rounded, intelligent, and extremely capable attorney. And while my compliments may seem biased, I am confident that President Biden made a smart choice by selecting a judge who may represent the future of our legal system. As the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court is often the last resort for those who seek justice. According to the Supreme Court itself, "As the final arbiter of the law, the Court is charged with ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law and, thereby, also functions as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution."
The Supreme Court is perhaps the most important institution and function of our government. It sets the legal standards for our nation and ensures the fundamental social and political rights that every American citizen is entitled to. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has extremely large shoes to fill. In many ways she will define the future of the court and in turn, the future of our nation's legal system. Most importantly of all, Judge Jackson has set the precedent for all Americans, regardless of race, creed, or background, that anyone can serve and thrive in our legal system. That itself is noble.