When Ketanji Brown Jackson sits for her Supreme Court confirmation hearing this week, the nation’s first Black female nominee will encounter a Senate Judiciary Committee that doesn’t look much like her.
She will face questions from just four women on a powerful 22-member committee — a panel that, historically, has been dominated by white men.
Though it’s well known that the Senate and its committees don’t have much diversity to speak of, Jackson’s nomination brings it once more into sharp relief.
“Diversity does make a difference because you get people with different life experiences bringing those life experiences to bare on policy making,” said former Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, the first Black woman to sit on the committee and in the Senate. “That’s the essential ingredient I think of why diversity in these power places makes such a big difference because everybody gets the benefit of the full range of life experiences of Americans.”
Jolted by the controversial confirmation hearing of now-Justice Clarence Thomas, who faced questions from an all-white, all-male panel, Moseley Braun decided to run for the Senate in 1992. Thomas was accused of sexually harassing attorney Anita Hill, his subordinate in the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas denied the allegations.
Had there been women or people of color on the committee, Moseley Braun said she thinks there could have been a different outcome for Thomas’ nomination and Hill could have been treated with more respect.
Moseley Braun won and went on to become the first Black woman in the Senate. Former Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California was only the second Black woman to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee after Moseley Braun until she became vice president. There are currently no Black female senators serving in the Senate.
Moseley Braun joined the committee after she assumed office in 1993 and presided over the confirmation of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
“Just being on the committee gave rise to a different kind of sensibility,” Moseley Braun said. “The misogyny did not get a chance to express itself as virulently as it might have.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, in which he faced accusations of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, echoed similarities to Thomas’ confirmation. Republicans called in Rachel Mitchell, an experienced sex crimes prosecutor from Arizona, to question Kavanaugh about the allegations during his hearing, and many speculated it was because there were no female Republican senators on the committee at the time of his confirmation. Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Though the committee questioning Jackson is still dominated by white men, diversity on the committee during Supreme Court nominations has increased some in recent years. The committee now includes Sens. Feinstein; Mazie Hirono, the second Asian American in the panel’s history; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; Alex Padilla, D-Calif.; and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who identifies as Hispanic.
Cedric Merlin Powell, a law professor at the University of Louisville, said the lack of diversity on the committee has an impact on how nominees are questioned.
“It gives the process legitimacy when you have people with perspectives and diverse viewpoints on the committee. One thing you want to avoid is monolithic thought — people who think the same and ask the same questions,” he said. “You want the committee to look like America.”