Is Ketanji Brown Jackson liberal or conservative compared with Stephen Breyer?

Bruno Cooke June 29, 2022
Is Ketanji Brown Jackson liberal or conservative compared with Stephen Breyer?
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will officially retire this Thursday (June 30, 2022) at noon, paving the way for Ketanji Brown Jackson – so which of them is more liberal or conservative?

ABC News describes Breyer as the most senior member of the Supreme Court’s “liberal wing”. 

Meanwhile, Jackson is the first Black woman to be confirmed by the US Senate as a Supreme Court Justice.

The changeover comes at an interesting point in US political history. Many Americans are still reeling from the Supreme Court’s decision, officially confirmed last week, to overturn Roe v Wade. So, how do the political views of Breyer and Jackson compare?

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Is Ketanji Brown Jackson liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat?

The US Senate confirmed Jackson to the Supreme Court by a vote of 53-47. 

She enjoyed bipartisan support, with Republican senators Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joining the Senate’s 50 Democrats to confirm her.

Time wrote at the time that her confirmation would “not change the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court”. The bench has a 6-3 conservative majority, meaning Jackson, being relatively liberal, will be in the minority.

The outlet cited “former colleagues and mentors” of Jackson’s in saying she will likely “strive to be in the majority with her colleagues whenever possible” – and seek compromise and consensus “from the minority position”.

Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Her confirmation was nevertheless a ‘victory’ for Democratic president Joe Biden

Jackson was the first Democratic appointee to the Supreme Court in 13 years.

That doesn’t necessarily reflect her political views, but it gives an idea of where Jackson sits ideologically. She may have had a degree of bipartisan support in her confirmation vote, but 47 out of 50 Republicans voted against her.

During her 26-year legal career – she started out as a law clerk under Patti Saris in 1996 – Jackson has always held positions requiring political neutrality.

She’s been a law clerk, an associate with various firms, an assistant federal public defender, and a commissioner for the US sentencing commission. From 2013 to 2021, she was a judge with the US district court for the District of Columbia.

Photo by Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images

Was Stephen Breyer appointed by a Democrat or Republican president?

Breyer, who is 83 years old, is widely considered to be part of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing. His fellow “liberals” are – or have been – Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Bill Clinton appointed Breyer to the Supreme Court in 1994. He has consistently sided with liberals on the bench, writes Newsweek, voting “repeatedly”, for example, “to affirm abortion rights”.

The political leanings of Supreme Court Justices are always the subject of curiosity. Axios recently published a chart showing each of the current Supreme Court Justices, including Breyer, on a scale from liberal to conservative.

It uses each of the Justices’ Martin-Quinn (or M-Q) scores. These are metrics people use to gauge the ideology of members of the court. Sonia Sotomayor is the most liberal Supreme Court Justice, according to the chart; Samuel Alito is the most conservative.

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How liberal or conservative is Ketanji Brown Jackson compared with outgoing Justice Stephen Breyer?

Like outgoing Justice Breyer, Jackson was appointed by a president who is a Democrat – whose own party affiliation suggests a preference for liberal, rather than conservative, interpreters of the law.

Interestingly, the political analysis website FiveThirtyEight believes Jackson will make a more liberal Justice than Breyer has been. This claim is “based on her professional background and her previous rulings”.

Slate agrees that she will likely be a liberal figure in the court. But the outlet also notes that, during her testimony before the Senate before her confirmation, she “endorsed conservative theories like originalism and textualism”.

Meanwhile, Richard Limpert of Brookings University writes that “nothing about [Jackson’s] career suggests she is an ideologue”. She will not, he continues, take the bench “with the aim of achieving partisan goals”.

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Bruno Cooke has been a freelance journalist since 2019, primarily with GRV Media. He was an early contributor to The Focus, and has written for HITC, Groundviews and the Sheffield University newspaper – he earned his MA in Global Journalism there in 2021. He’s the Spoken Word Poetry Editor for The Friday Poem, and self-published his debut novel Reveries in 2019, which his mum called both a “fine read” and “excellent Christmas present”. Bruno has lived in China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines and likes, among other things: bicycle touring, black and white Japanese films, pub quizzes, fermentation and baklava. In 2023, Bruno will set off with his partner on a round-the-world cycle.