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In Historic Echo, Mississippi Senators Vote No As First Black Woman Joins High Court

a photo of Joe Biden holding up a phone to take a selfie with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in front of a TV showing her 53-47 confirmation vote
President Joe Biden takes a selfie with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in front of a television tuned to C-SPAN as the Senate officially confirms her to the U.S. Supreme Court on April 7, 2022. Photo courtesy White House

The U.S. Senate voted to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman in history to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, but both of Mississippi’s U.S. senators, Republicans Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker, voted no.

The vote comes almost 55 years after two of the state’s former U.S. senators, Democrats James O. Eastland and John C. Stennis, voted against confirming Thurgood Marshall as the first Black man to serve on the nation’s high court. Biden, who nominated Jackson, once counted Eastland and Stennis as mentors during his early days in the U.S. Senate.

Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, noted in a statement after today’s vote that Jackson “is also the first public defender” to serve on the court.

“The highest Court in the land now will have a firsthand perspective of how the law impacts communities of color—via voting rights, police misconduct, abortion access, housing discrimination, or the criminal legal system, among other issues,” Dianis said. “This  will ultimately benefit all Americans.”

a photo of senator Wicker in a committee meeting
Any Black woman President Biden nominates to the U.S. Supreme Court will be a “beneficiary” of an affirmative action “quota,” U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said in a radio interview on Jan. 28, 2022, before Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Photo courtesy U.S. Senate Photo by Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times via AP, Pool

As a 2020 presidential candidate, Joe Biden vowed to appoint the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court—a promise he reiterated in January 2022 after Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement. Even before Biden announced he had chosen Jackson, though, Sen. Wicker told SuperTalk Mississippi radio host Paul Gallo in January that he did not plan to support the president’s nominee. Wicker said then that any Black woman the president chose would be a “beneficiary” of an affirmative action “quota”—earning a rebuke from the White House.

‘Activism’ Not A New Concern

After President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, southern senators cited his history of civil-rights advocacy as a strike against him. As a lawyer, Marshall had successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka before the nation’s high court, leading to the downfall of public school segregation.

“Are you prejudiced against the white people of the South?” Sen. Eastland, a staunch segregationist from the Mississippi Delta, asked Marshall during his confirmation hearings.

“No, not at all,” the nominee said.

a photo of Thurgood Marshall
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall became the first Black man to join the nation’s high court in 1967. Photo by Okamoto, Yoichi Robert / National Archives and Records Administration

Eastland joined 11 other southern senators who voted against confirming Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court; 69 senators voted to confirm him, while 20 did not vote. Eastland said he voted no because Marshall would “use the vast power of the court as an instrument of social policy.”

Sen. Stennis, a segregationist who would later repudiate some of those views, skipped the vote, but made clear before leaving that he opposed Marshall’s confirmation, calling Marshall an “activist” and saying he had refused “to explain his philosophy” and “flatly refused to answer simple factual questions.” 

In statements this week, Mississippi’s two U.S. senators similarly offered their reasons for opposing Jackson’s confirmation. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith claimed that “Judge Jackson’s record indicates a readiness to legislate from the bench,” accusing her of being someone who would use the court for left-wing “activism.”

In his statement, Wicker said Jackson “did not alleviate my concerns that she has a far-left judicial philosophy” and claimed that “she has refused to answer basic questions about her record and her approach to the law.”

Conservative Majority Remains

Clarence Thomas, a conservative justice whom President George H.W. Bush appointed to replace Marshall upon his retirement, remains the only Black U.S. Supreme Court nominee who has enjoyed support from Mississippi senators.

In 1991, Republican Mississippi U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott voted to approve Thomas’ nomination amid a contentious confirmation battle. He won approval in a 52-48 vote after Anita Hill testified that the nominee had sexually harassed her during her time as his employee.

a photo of Cindy Hyde-Smith standing with Ketanji Brown Jackson smiling
U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, left, said she “cannot in good conscience support” confirming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, right, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo courtesy Sen. Hyde-Smith

Thomas’ wife, Ginni Thomas, made news recently amid revelations that she pushed the Trump White House to fight to overturn the 2020 election ahead of January 6th and at a time when the high court was considering election-related lawsuits.

Because she is replacing Breyer, a white liberal justice, Jackson’s appointment will diversify the court, but it will not change the court’s rightward tilt, which former President Donald Trump cemented when he appointed a third of its members between 2017 and 2020. 

The court will maintain a 6-3 conservative majority.

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