President Joe Biden has nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, calling her “one of the nation’s brightest legal minds”.
She will be the first black woman to serve in the court’s 233-year history if confirmed.
She would replace liberal Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer when he retires at the end of the court’s term in June.
Ms Jackson, a federal appeals judge, said on Friday she was “humbled” by the nomination.
Announcing the nomination on Friday, President Biden described Judge Jackson as an “extraordinary” candidate, with an “independent mind, uncompromising integrity and a strong moral compass”.
With the Senate divided 50-50 between the parties, Democrats have just enough votes to confirm President Biden’s choice if they all back her. Vice President Kamala Harris has the deciding vote in the case of a tie.
Justice Breyer’s replacement would not shift the court’s current 6-3 conservative majority.
The Supreme Court plays a key role in American life and is often the final word on highly contentious laws, disputes between states and the federal government, and final appeals to stay executions.
For any Supreme Court justice nomination, the president first chooses his preferred candidate and the Senate then votes to confirm that nominee, which requires a simple majority.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings “in the coming weeks”.
Ms Jackson, 51, currently serves on the influential US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit. Three current supreme court justices previously served on that court.
The jurist has two degrees from Harvard University, which she attended as an undergraduate and as a law student, and once served as editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Ms Jackson has said when she told her high school guidance counsellor she wanted to attend the prestigious Ivy League school, she was warned not to set her sights so high.
Mr Biden first promised to nominate a black woman to the top court two years ago while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Black women make up about 3% of the federal judiciary, according to data from the Federal Judicial Center, the court system’s research arm.
Ms Jackson’s nomination is historic for more than one reason. If she is confirmed, four women will sit together on the nine-member court for the first time.
“For too long, our government, our court hasn’t looked like America,” Mr Biden said on Friday. “I believe it’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talent and greatness of our nation.”
There have been just two Black Americans on the Supreme Court to date. Justice Thurgood Marshall was nominated by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 and Justice Clarence Thomas, who still sits on the court, was nominated by President George H W Bush in 1994.
Ms Jackson was born in Washington, DC but grew up in the Miami area.
At her 2021 confirmation to the appellate court, she credited a background of public service with her decision to work as a public defender. Her parents are both graduates of historically black colleges who began their careers as teachers, and her brother was a police officer who served in the military.
When Ms Jackson was a young child, her father attended law school. “Some of my earliest memories are of him sitting at the kitchen table, reading his law books,” she said on Friday.
Ms Jackson also has a connection with the justice she will replace. She clerked for Justice Breyer during the Supreme Court’s 1999-2000 term.
On Friday she praised her former boss for his “civility, grace, pragmatism and generosity of spirit”.
“Justice Breyer, the members of the Senate will decide if I fill your seat, but please know I could never fill your shoes,” she said.
In 2012, then President Barack Obama nominated Ms Jakcson to serve as a district court judge in Washington, DC.
During the eight years she spent on the district court, she penned more than 500 opinions. Among them, she ruled that Donald F McGhan II, the former White House counsel to President Donald Trump, had to testify in the Russia meddling probe.
“Presidents are not kings,” she wrote in the 2019 ruling.
Ms Jackson, a liberal justice, has a family connection to Paul Ryan, former House Speaker and ex-Republican vice-presidential candidate.
“Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, and for her integrity, is unequivocal.” he wrote on Twitter on Friday. He is related to her by marriage.
Ms Jackson’s husband is a surgeon and she has two children.
While her nomination has been widely praised by Democrats, two South Carolina Republicans- Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott – criticised the president for choosing Ms Jackson over Michelle Childs – a judge from their home state.
Judge Childs was reportedly on Mr Biden’s short-list.
Ketanji Brown Jackson was considered the favourite to be Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee when his search began last month – and it was a position she never relinquished.
That fits with the way Mr Biden has gone about making his other key appointments, for vice-president and top Cabinet posts. He tends to opt for the safe, predictable choice.
Ms Jackson has already been confirmed by this US Senate once, when the president nominated her to an appellate court judgeship. Although her judicial record will be scrutinised in the days ahead, it is liberal but not extreme.
Her credentials – Ivy League law school, a clerkship with retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and eight years as a federal district court judge – are high caliber.
A small drama that is sure to unfold with this pick is one between the president and Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat whose support was pivotal to Mr Biden’s victory in the 2020 Democratic primaries.
Mr Clyburn had his own favourite, South Carolina judge, J Michelle Childs. But Ms Childs was a more unconventional pick, without Ms Jackson’s rarified academic pedigree. Picking her may have been politically helpful for Mr Biden, but that’s not how this president works.