The US Supreme Court is to include a black female justice for the first time in its 233-year history after the Senate confirmed Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the nine-member bench.
Three Republicans crossed the aisle to seal her appointment by a vote of 53 to 47.
Justice Jackson's appointment fulfils President Joe Biden's campaign promise to put a black woman on the court, giving President Joe Biden a bipartisan endorsement for his promised effort to diversify the high court.
Cheers rang out in the Senate chamber as Jackson, a 51 year-old appeals court judge with nine years experience on the federal bench, was confirmed 53-47, mostly along party lines but with three Republican votes. Presiding over the vote was Vice President Kamala Harris, also the first Black woman to reach her high office.
Biden tweeted afterward that “we’ve taken another step toward making our highest court reflect the diversity of America.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer exulted that it was “a wonderful day, a joyous day, an inspiring day — for the Senate, for the Supreme Court and for the United States of America.”
Harris said as she left the Capitol that she was “overjoyed, deeply moved.”
Jackson, who currently serves on the US court of appeals for the DC circuit, will replace Stephen Breyer, 83, the most senior member of the court’s liberal bloc. Breyer, for whom Jackson clerked early in her legal career, said he intends to retire from the court this summer.
At 51, Jackson is young enough to serve on the court for decades. Her ascension, however, will do little to tilt the ideological balance of the high court, dominated by a 6-3 conservative majority. But it does mean for the first time in the court’s history that white men are in the minority.
Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to serve as US vice-president, presided over the Senate vote as Jackson became the first Black woman to join the supreme court, underscoring the historic nature of her confirmation. Harris called for the final vote on Jackson’s nomination with a smile on her face, and the chamber broke into loud applause when the judge was confirmed.
“Today, we are taking a giant, bold and important step on the well-trodden path to fulfilling our country’s founding promises,” Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said just before the final vote. “This is a great moment for Judge Jackson. But it is an even greater moment for America as we rise to a more perfect union.”
The White House has announced that Biden, Harris and Jackson will deliver remarks on Friday to celebrate the confirmation. Jackson and Biden watched the final Senate vote together in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
During four days of Senate hearings last month, Jackson spoke of her parents’ struggles through racial segregation and said her “path was clearer” than theirs as a Black American after the enactment of civil rights laws. She attended Harvard University, served as a public defender, worked at a private law firm and was appointed as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Despite Republican criticism of her record, Jackson eventually won three GOP votes. The final tally was far from the overwhelming bipartisan confirmations for Breyer and other justices in decades past, but it was still a significant accomplishment for Biden in the 50-50 split Senate after GOP senators aggressively worked to paint Jackson as too liberal and soft on crime.
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of three Republicans to vote in favour of Justice Jackson said this decision rested, in part, as a "rejection of the corrosive politicisation" that has come to shape the confirmation process.
The new justice "will bring to the Supreme Court a range of experience from the courtroom that few can match given her background in litigation," Murkowski said.
The top court plays a crucial role in American public life and is often the last word on highly contentious laws and disputes between states and the federal government.