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Jackson makes a splash during debut on the bench

Wasting no time, the Supreme Court’s newest justice is already challenging advocates and offering wisdom. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said her ascension to the Supreme Court meant marginalized groups were invisible no more. During her first week on the bench, she made sure their voices were heard as well. 

“I have a seat at the table now and I'm ready to work,” Jackson said during remarks last Friday at the Library of Congress. 

In her short time on the bench, Jackson — who is the country's first Black female Supreme Court justice — has already weighed in on race, using a history lesson on the 14th and 15th Amendments to challenge arguments against giving Black voters more power to elect representatives. 

“I understood that we looked at the history and traditions of the Constitution, at what the framers and the founders thought about, and when I drilled down to that level of analysis, it became clear to me that the framers themselves adopted the equal protection clause, the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment, in a race-conscious way,” the Biden appointee said to Alabama’s solicitor general on Tuesday.

Alabama is seeking a Supreme Court reversal of orders for it to add a second majority-Black congressional district, saying this would violate of the Equal Protection Clause and claiming as well that congressional maps are supposed to be race-neutral. Jackson seemed to disagree, however, with the state’s claims that it would be discriminatory if race were considered to create equal opportunity while redistricting. She said the 14th and 15th Amendments were in fact specifically designed with race in mind.

Jackson’s judicial prowess was on display in this exchange. By using originalism — a judicial interpretation that follows the meaning of the Constitution as the framers understood at the time it was written — she not only effectively challenges Alabama’s claims, but works to persuade some of her conservative colleagues as well. 

“I don't think this is surprising for anybody who has observed Justice Jackson throughout her legal career,” Caroline Fredrickson, a distinguished visitor from practice at Georgetown Law and senior fellow at Brennan Center for Justice, said in a phone call. “She is a brilliant jurist and rightly confident. I think what we saw is simply her not being cowed by being in a new setting.” 

Following her investiture ceremony but before the Supreme Court began its 2022 term, Jackson reflected on the invisibility of many communities who have not had a voice on the court. Jackson said her seat on the court gave marginalized groups a renewed ownership, allowing them to benefit from seeing themselves portrayed as stakeholders in the national project. 

“They're saying to me, in essence, you go, girl,” Jackson told the Library of Congress on Friday. “They're saying, 'invisible no more. We see you and we are with you.'” 

During her first week on the bench, Jackson proved she was not only going to have a seat at the table but to be a commanding voice as well. Jackson wasted little time jumping into oral arguments this week, asking her first question less than eight minutes into the term. 

“I found her questioning to be a breath of fresh air because she comes to problems from the perspective of someone who has experienced many of the hardships that litigants face,” Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and Georgetown Law, said in an email. “She doesn't have a highly privileged background like so many other justices. Instead, she will have real-world experiences in her career and in her life guide her engagement on the most thorny legal issues. I expect her to be rigorous and impartial, but leaning toward justice and nondiscrimination in her judicial outlook.” 

Jackson was one of the most active and engaged questioners on the bench this week. She is very expressive, gesturing with her hands, and tends to ask very detailed questions of advocates. 

“I think it's just representative of how Justice Jackson has comported herself throughout her career,” Fredrickson said. “On the bench, she's always extremely prepared. She is always very thorough. She always exemplifies the highest standards on the bench, and I think she's going to bring some tough but fair questioning to the process that I think the lawyers in front of the court are going to have to be ready for.” 

Court watchers predicted Jackson would likely have similar views to her liberal colleagues on the bench, and her questions this week are already confirming some of those assumptions. 

“Like the other liberal members, her questions are signaling that she favors an expansive interpretation of federal agency action on health, safety and the environment,” Gostin said. “I similarly expect her to be among the court's most committed justices in advancing equity and non-discrimination in upcoming cases on voting rights, affirmative action and LGTBQ+ rights.” 

While Jackson now has a seat on the bench, she might still be fighting an uphill battle as one of three liberal justices on the conservative court. 

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