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Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, with President Joe Biden, speaks after she was nominated for Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, in the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington, DC, February 25, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: President Joe Biden on Friday nominated federal appellate judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the first Black woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, setting up a confirmation battle in the closely divided Senate.

Biden picked Jackson, 51, for a lifetime job on the nation’s top judicial body to succeed retiring liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, fulfilling a campaign promise he made two years ago to the day to make the historic appointment. Of the 115 people who have ever served on the Supreme Court, all but three have been white, only two have been Black and both of those were men.

At a White House event with his nominee at his side, Biden called Jackson a “proven consensus builder” and a “distinguished jurist,” adding that it is important to have a nominee who reflects the full talents and greatness of America.

Biden, who took office last year, is sagging in opinion polls, with 43 per cent of US adults approving of his job performance in a Reuters/Ipsos poll. Any political benefit for Biden with the historic nomination could be diluted by the international crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Jackson has served since last year on the influential US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit after eight years as a federal district judge in Washington.

If confirmed, Jackson 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 Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump.

Democrats narrowly control the evenly split 100-seat Senate, and if they stay united could confirm Jackson with no Republican votes. Democrats have said they plan to move the nomination on a timetable similar to the single month that Republicans used for Trump’s third appointee Justice Amy Coney Barrett in 2020.

“We will begin immediately to move forward on her nomination with the careful, fair and professional approach she and America are entitled to,” said Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who chairs the Judiciary Committee that will hold confirmation hearings.

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

Republican criticism

Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell called Jackson “the favoured choice of far-left dark-money groups that have spent years attacking the legitimacy and structure of the court itself.” McConnell previously signaled that if Republicans regain the Senate majority in the Nov. 8 midterm elections, he could use that power to block any further Biden Supreme Court nominees.

The Senate voted 53-44 last year to confirm Jackson after Biden nominated her to the DC Circuit, though all but three Republicans voted against her.

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of those three, signaled a change of tune on Friday, saying Jackson’s nomination showed that “the radical Left has won President Biden over yet again.” At 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 confirmed her in 2013 after Democratic former President Barack Obama nominated her as a district judge.

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 Trump’s bid to prevent White House records from being handed over to a congressional panel investigating last year’s Capitol attack.

While Jackson would not change the court’s ideological balance — she would be replacing a fellow liberal — her nomination enables Biden to refresh its liberal wing with a much younger jurist who could serve for decades, just as Trump’s three relatively young appointees are in a position to do.

Jackson’s nomination gives Biden a chance to shore up support among women, minorities and liberals ahead of the midterm elections. Biden’s strength among suburban women, seen as a key reason for his victory over Trump, has eroded since taking office last year, worrying his political aides.

Democrats control the Senate because Vice President Kamala Harris can break a tie. 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 Jackson.

Because of a rules change spearheaded by Republicans to ease the confirmation of Trump’s first nominee amid Democratic opposition, only a simple Senate majority vote is needed for confirmation.

Breyer, who at 83 is the court’s oldest justice, plans to step aside when its current term ends, usually in late June.

The Supreme Court is due to rule in the coming months in cases that could curb abortion rights and expand gun rights. In its next term it is due to hear a case that could end affirmative action policies used by colleges and universities to increase the number of Black and Hispanic students.