Earlier this week, I attended the confirmation hearing of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Outside, spring in the nation’s capital was in full bloom, with cherry blossoms dotting the landscape — signs of hope, growth, and new beginnings echoed in the liberative invitation of many faith traditions’ spring holidays, including Passover, Easter, and Holi. Inside at the hearing, the mood was equally hopeful: Jackson’s nomination offers a new beginning — a new direction for the court and our country, and a hope for the future.
While Jackson’s confirmation won’t change the conservative majority of the court, it will bring change. Jackson, if confirmed, would be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court and the only justice on the court with first-hand experience as a public defender. Her background in public defense is important because it means Jackson is very familiar with how the decisions judges make impact everyday people. Her confirmation has the potential to change us as well, expanding what we imagine a Supreme Court justice looks like. For the first time, Black women will see someone who looks like them in a justice on the highest court in our nation — a broadening and deepening of the values and experiences brought to bear on the cases that impact our lives.
This is justice. Deeply woven throughout my Jewish tradition is an understanding that our pursuit of a nonpartisan judiciary is, in its essence, the pursuit of justice. In the fifth book of the Torah, the famous injunction tzedek, tzedek, tirdof — “justice, justice, you shall pursue” — is situated in the context of verses imploring us to create a fair and impartial judiciary (Deuteronomy 16: 18-20). Our text and tradition communicate the importance of unbiased judges as well as fair and impartial courts. For the system to work for the people it serves, the federal courts must be devised of fair, qualified, and impartial judges who mete out just decisions equally. As the Torah guides, “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly” (Leviticus 19:15).
Guided by my faith, I am compelled to ensure a federal judiciary that is of and for the people, with qualified judges in these lifetime seats who are fair, independent, and committed to protecting everyone’s constitutional rights. As the final arbiters of justice, our judges should reflect the people whose rights they’re entrusted to uphold. These traits are even more critical for those appointed to serve on our nation’s highest court.
Of course, the Supreme Court has not always represented the people it serves nor upheld the rights of everyone. Throughout U.S. history, the court has made decisions that upheld the interests of those with power at the expense of the rights of others; this includes decisions that have upheld white supremacy — a legacy the court now has an obligation to dismantle. This is why it’s important for justices on the court to share a commitment to equal justice for all, while bringing different lived and professional experiences to their work: Through the cases they choose to hear — and those they choose not to hear — as well as by their judicial rulings, the court has real power to help undo systems of power and oppression.
This vision, this hope for our court, is reflected in Jackson’s background and record. Her rulings in favor of unions, environmental protections, reproductive justice, and more — along with her history working as a public defender — align with Judaism’s emphasis on pursuing justice and a judiciary that works for everyone. In 2013, Jackson was unanimously confirmed to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, where she made several important rulings. She supported workers’ rights by invalidating attempts to limit collective bargaining; overturned attempts to terminate federal funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, an important evidence-based grant program that funds diverse organizations working to prevent teen pregnancy across the U.S.; and upheld the Americans with Disabilities Act, ruling that prison officials had acted with “deliberate indifference” when they denied a deaf inmate’s request for reasonable accommodations. Further, Jackson illustrated her commitment to the Constitution and nonpartisanship when she rejected the Trump administration’s claim of absolute immunity for a former White House counsel by stating, “presidents are not kings.”
Nominated in 2009 to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan, independent agency that aims to reduce sentencing disparities and promote transparency and proportionality in sentencing, Jackson reduced sentencing minimum guidelines for crack cocaine-related offenses. She later represented low-income appellants before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit as an assistant federal public defender, a job that no other sitting justice on the Supreme Court has held.
Jackson has also affirmed her commitment to religious liberty as a constitutional principle enshrined in Supreme Court precedent, an important issue for religious communities, particularly minority religious communities like my own. At her April 2021 Senate confirmation hearing to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Jackson expressed a clear and firm commitment to the principle that true religious liberty involves both freedom of and freedom from religion — that religious liberty is a “foundational tenet of our entire government.” She was confirmed to that court with bipartisan support.
Jackson is herself a person of faith. Upon being nominated to the Supreme Court by President Joe Biden, Jackson said, “I must begin these very brief remarks by thanking God for delivering me to this point in my professional journey. My life has been blessed beyond measure, and I do know that one can only come this far by faith.” At her hearing on Monday, Jackson made similar comments.
On the second day of Jackson’s hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) repeatedly questioned Jackson about her faith, asking her at one point, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how faithful would you say you are, in terms of religion.” Of course, judicial nominees may — and often do — discuss their religion, but being religious or religiously unaffiliated does not make a candidate any more or less qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. Rather, senators should probe a nominee’s position on the constitutional principle of religion-state separation as well as the nominee’s commitment to applying the law rather than any personal religious views. Or as Jackson put it in her reply to Graham’s request to rate her faith: “Senator, I am reluctant to talk about my faith in this way just because I want to be mindful of the need for the public to have confidence in my ability to separate out my personal views.”
Jackson’s nomination is a new beginning, like this beautiful spring in which we find ourselves. Her nomination is also part of our nation’s journey to becoming a truly multiracial, multifaith democracy with a court that represents all of us. At the same time, her nomination is a reminder that seating one Black woman on the Supreme Court doesn’t absolve us of the work of justice. Indeed, one of our most well-known Jewish texts reminds us that, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot, 2:21). Jackson’s nomination and eventual confirmation, like this holiday season, is an invitation to hope.
As my family and Jewish people across the globe prepare to celebrate Passover next month, we retell the story of our exodus from slavery — a story full of hardship, oppression, and ultimately freedom. We are reminded of our Jewish tradition’s principles of righteousness and compassion and recommit to bringing more justice into the world. How appropriate to live out this moral obligation by working to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.
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