220225 Jackson
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, with President Joe Biden Image Credit: AFP

If you watched, as I did, indeed as millions of others did, the tense and at times contentious 4-day-long televised confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, nominated for the US Supreme Court, you would’ve been riveted by the spectacle — the first black woman in the history of the American Republic considered as a possible justice in a court viewed as the final arbiter of the law of the land.

One might say, if you wish, a court whose members sleep well at night knowing that their rulings could never be reversed by a higher court.

Tense and contentious the hearings indeed were, given the fact that Republican legislators in the Senate Judiciary Committee seemed to hector the nominee rather than question her, clearly aiming to appeal to their party’s hard-right base. All of which prompted the chairman of the committee, Dick Durban, a Democrat, to exclaim with exasperation: “Some of the attacks on the judge were unfair, unrelenting and beneath the dignity of the United States Senate”.

Even beyond the confines of the chamber where she was being grilled, Judge Jackson became a casualty of the culture wars now raging across American society. For, let’s face it, too many Americans today, both on the left and on the right, each for their own reasons, think that America in our time is irremediably flawed. And the battlefield resounds with blazing guns aimed at hitting below the belt

Racism and other issues 

A case in point is how the far-right firebrand Tucker Carlson of Fox News took a swipe at the Black judge In a veiled racist question, dripping with sarcasm, he rhetorically asked viewers of his television show, “So, is Ketanji Brown Jackson — a name that even [President] Joe Biden has trouble pronouncing — one of the top legal minds in the entire country?”

Jackson may not be “one of the top legal minds in the entire country” but she sure as heck has the right credentials — graduate of Harvard Law, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and Vice Chair of the United States Sentencing Commision. In short, a proud and highly accomplished 52-year-old Black American woman. And, Oh, yes, a Washingtonian, born and bred, thank you very much!

Jackson’s first name is popular in Africa and translates into English as “the lovely one”, given by her parents in honour of their historical roots in that continent and in solemn memory of their ancestors who were brought here on slave ships. And now Ketanji appears on track for a quick confirmation next Monday, when the 100-member Senate convenes to vote, by a simple majority (with one vote cast by the Vice President Kamala Harris should there be a tie) as the first African American woman to be appointed a justice of the Supreme Court.

And the Supreme Court in the United States is supreme indeed. If no other people in the world take the highest judicial court in the land as seriously as Americans do theirs, never ceasing to obsess over its rulings with a mixture of awe and trepidation, it is because these rulings — on issues as wide-ranging as race and politics, culture and history and gender and identity — is extensive.

Rhythm of life in American society

So extensive is that reach that, unlike its counterpart, say in the United Kingdom, the United States Supreme Court affects, by the decisions it makes, no less than the rhythm of quotidian life in American society. And Elizabeth Wydra, President of the Constitutional Accountability Center was not being mock-serious when she averred: “From the air you breathe to the water you drink to the roof over your head to the person across from you in bed, the Supreme Court touches all of that”.

But, wait, the nine justices who serve on the bench in that august court on Capitol Hill in Washington, next to the Library of Congress, in that rarefied world of their own, far removed from the grind of daily life lived by ordinary Americans, are human like you and me.

They have been known to alternately make noble decisions that enriched the lot of deprived Americans, such as the 1952 landmark Brown v Board of Education — a ruling that outlawed segregation in state schools — and ignoble rulings that impoverished the lot of innocent Americans, such as the 1944 unspeakable Karamatsu v United States a ruling that upheld the internment in prison camps of thousands of Japanese Americans — determining that the need to “protect against espionage” outweighed the individual rights of American citizens.

Goes to show you that no one person, no one institution, no one era is perfect — not even the United States Supreme court.

America, get used to it, a proud Black woman, descended of slaves, with an African first name, will soon don her judicial robe, sit on the bench of the highest court in the land and do her progressive thing.

The kid’ll be all right. Have no fear, she is, I say, a Washingtonian.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile