That was the challenge a stranger imparted on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson when she was just in college and wrestling with self-doubt and fears of the future. And it’s the message she wishes to impart on others as she’s poised to make history as the first black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was a particularly emotional moment between Judge Jackson and U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., Wednesday, toward the end of a days-long, often grueling confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.
Sen. Padilla praised Judge Jackson’s temperament during some Republicans’ lines of questioning and noted that “people of color, particularly those who have the audacity to try to be the first, often have to work twice as hard to get half the respect.”
And he asked her: “What would you say, Judge Jackson, to all those young Americans, the most diverse generation in our nation’s history … who may doubt that they can one achieve the same great heights that you have?”
“I appreciate the opportunity to speak to young people,” Judge Jackson said. “I hope to inspire people to try to follow this path because I love this country, because I love the law, because I think it is important that we all invest in our future. And the young people are the future, and so I want them to know that they can do and be anything.”
Judge Jackson recounted how she was walking through a cold Harvard Yard during her freshman year and feeling overcome by homesickness and the new challenges she — a girl from Miami who had attended public school — now faced.
She wondered if she belonged at Harvard, if she could really “make it” at the Ivy League institution, when a black woman she did not know passed her on the sidewalk, looked at her and simply said, “Persevere.”
“I would tell them to persevere,” Judge Jackson said of the message she would give to young people who might also struggle with self-doubt.
Sen. Padilla recalled how one of his teachers attempted to discourage him from applying to MIT, where he ultimately graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.
“I turned that discouragement into motivation,” Sen. Padilla said.
“You don’t have to hope. I’ll tell you right now, you do inspire. You are an inspiration,” Sen. Padilla continued.
The exchange began after Sen. Padilla opened his questioning of Judge Jackson by asking about her thoughts on the importance of language, particularly in court. He specifically pointed to words such as “alien” used to describe immigrants.
During Sen. Padilla’s comments, Judge Jackson sat virtually unmoving with her hands clasped and rested on the desk in front of her.
Republicans have grilled Judge Jackson about her faith, sentencing record and more during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing this week.
On Thursday, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, said he would not support Judge Jackson’s appointment to the Supreme Court.
“As the Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings conclude, one thing is abundantly clear: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is immensely qualified and well-suited to serve on the Supreme Court,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said “I was impressed throughout the hearings by her character, intellect, life and professional experiences as well as the deep understanding of the law she exhibited while answering tough questions. She has strong and broad support from judges and legal experts across the ideological spectrum as well as from numerous law enforcement and civic organizations.”
Judge Jackson has needed Senate confirmation for prior appointments, including for the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the appeals court, and has received Republican support in those instances.
President Joe Biden announced Judge Jackson as his historic pick for the Supreme Court bench earlier this year, fulfilling a campaign promise to nominate a black woman to the nation’s highest court.
Judge Jackson, 51, sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.