At mid-afternoon Thursday, Ketanji Brown Jackson, a 51-year-old federal circuit judge, became “Justice-designate” Jackson when the Senate voted 53-47 to confirm her for the seat. She will actually become a Justice, however, only this summer, perhaps in early July, because there will be no vacant seat for her to fill until then.
She was chosen by President Biden to succeed Justice Stephen G. Breyer, but he is planning to retire only after the current Court term ends – no earlier than late June. It was not necessary that a seat on the Court already be vacant before a President can follow the two-step process spelled out in the Constitution for choosing a new member of the Court.
First, the President nominates, and second, appoints. The actual appointment can only come after the Senate has confirmed the President’s choice. Only a simple majority is required in the Senate.
Now that Justice-designate Jackson has cleared the Senate, the formalities of putting her to work come next. The President must sign an official commission, a document that completes the appointment process. Then she must take two oaths.
The Constitution’s Article VI specifies that every federal officer must take a binding oath “to support this Constitution.” The Judiciary Act of 1789, the law that Congress passed to create the new Constitution’s federal court system, requires each judge or Justice to take a second oath.
As presently worded, that “judicial oath” will require her to “swear or affirm” to “administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich” and, further, to “faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties” required by the Constitution and U.S. laws.
In the meantime, before those formalities begin, Jackson formally remains a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. If she does not resign that post voluntarily, she would not be expected to continue actually performing that duty – presumably, to avoid having to take herself out of any cases decided by that court that later were appealed to the Supreme Court.
The sequence of oath-taking has varied over the Court’s history; in modern times, some Justices begin working right after taking the oaths in a private ritual, usually at the Court. But another recitation of both oaths can occur as part of a formal “investiture” ceremony at the Court.
When that ceremony is held for Justice-designate Jackson, she will be seated in front of the Court’s bench, occupying the chair that the Court’s most famous member, Chief Justice John Marshall, used on the bench in the early 1800s. It is treasured as part of the Court’s collection of historic artifacts.
The grand tradition of the Court in the nation’s history is reflected in that chair and its continuing ceremonial use, as well as in the arcane wording of the President’s commission, which is read aloud in the chamber at that ceremony.
In that document, a President explains why he is appointing the new Court member. It urges “all who shall see these presents” to “know ye” that the President is “reposing special trust and confidence in the wisdom, uprightness, and learning” of the new member of the Court.
It goes on to quote from the Constitution that the Justice is being appointed to the position “during good behavior” – in other words, not a term of years but life tenure. It concludes by saying that the President has “caused these letters to be made patent,” and notes that there is an official seal “affixed.”
Once that scroll is read by the Court’s clerk, Jackson then becomes a Justice with a final recital of the constitutional oath.
Justice-designate Jackson probably will use the hiatus of more than 11 weeks until the Court recesses the current term, to make preparations for her future role (no doubt, reading some of the legal briefs on cases already scheduled for review at the next term).
During those weeks, the Court will go on hearing and deciding pending cases without her. So much of what the Court will be deciding during the remainder of the term involves cases already heard but still being deliberated, so it would seriously disrupt that process if Justice Breyer were to step aside now to make his seat available to her.