The appointment of a U.S. Supreme Court justice is an important political, legal, and public event. For presidents, Supreme Court nominations provide an opportunity to shape the direction of public policy long after they leave office. For nominees, being chosen to fill a vacant seat signals that they have reached the top of the legal profession and, if confirmed, will play a major role in determining the future of law and policy in the United States. For senators, their duty to provide advice and consent to a president’s choice ensures that the legislative branch, as the people’s elected representatives, is involved in this important process. For the rest of us, the appointments process provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of the Supreme Court in our society, and register our own opinions about the constitutional choices the Court is making on the issues that affect our lives. And we are, in fact, paying attention. Millions of Americans tune into gavel-to-gavel television coverage of the hearings, and millions more follow them on TV news, the internet, radio, social media, and newspapers, or talk about the hearings with their friends and family.
If you were one of those millions who watched the most recent confirmation hearing—that of Ketanji Brown Jackson in 2022—you would have seen many senators celebrate an exceptionally well qualified nominee who also was the first Black woman appointed to the Supreme Court. You would have seen Jackson face tough questions—especially from Republican senators—on many of the pressing issues of the day, including abortion rights, affirmative action, and immigration. And you would have seen the nominee demonstrate a sharp legal mind, a calm demeanor, and a devotion to public service.
But if you looked closer, you also might have seen something else. You might have noticed senators—frequently white, male senators—aggressively interrupt Jackson when she tried to answer their questions. You may have observed some of those same senators question whether Jackson was soft on crime, if she held radical views about race, and whether her judicial philosophy was up to snuff. You may have reflected on whether this type of questioning was the norm, whether it was just politics, or whether it was particularly harsh this time around. You may have wondered, in other words, whether female nominees and nominees of color, like Justice Jackson, faced a different type of confirmation process than do their white, male peers.
This is the topic we explore throughout this book. Combining insights from interdisciplinary work about race and gender biases with a wealth of original data and narratives drawn from the hearings themselves, we explore the role race and gender have played at Supreme Court confirmation hearings, particularly in shaping the hearing experiences of female nominees and nominees of color. We explain how race and gender biases manifest at the hearings, why it matters when they do, and what steps could be taken to reduce them in the future.