Ketanji Brown Jackson: A Step Against Groupthink in Government

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Issue 12, Volume 112

By Amanda Cisse 

During Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, he made a promise to nominate a black woman to the US Supreme Court, and on February 25, 2022, he nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who made it clear when discussing her nomination that she “know[s] very well what my obligations are, what my duties are, not to rule with partisan advantage in mind, not to tailor or craft my decisions in order to try to gain influence or do anything of the sort.” The decision to bring Jackson’s voice to the Supreme Court will leave a lasting impression on the US government and its citizens.

Jackson brings many accomplishments to the table, but her nomination also adds value to the Supreme Court’s method of decision making and the way new members are nominated. To understand the value of Jackson’s nomination, it’s useful to consider the phenomenon of groupthink, a social psychological theory in which people strive for consensus within a group. An idea is proposed, and one person agrees. By desire to fit in, so does the next, and eventually, the whole group reaches a unanimous decision. Wanting to maintain a sense of community when working with others is understandable, but with scenarios in which decision makers are focused more on maintaining balance than they are on the potential consequences of their decisions, groupthink can easily become the downfall of a team.

NASA’s 2007 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster is a prime example of the consequences of groupthink. Some engineers had safety concerns about the launch of the spacecraft but were pressured to reconsider their position in order to complete the launch as scheduled. The Challenger took off and broke apart, killing seven crew members.

Similar issues can occur in any type of team, including the Supreme Court. During his presidency, Donald Trump nominated two white male conservatives with similar working experience, both from Ivy League law schools and the same private preparatory school. Of course, they have impressive qualifications, but they have exceedingly similar demographics, experience, and education to the rest of the Supreme Court. This example demonstrates another risk. Once a profile of a Supreme Court member is established, it becomes increasingly difficult to introduce new perspectives to the team. Why would Trump, having a profile similar to his nominees, have chosen somebody different? Why would he have nominated someone like Jackson, for instance, when the safer path was to nominate a familiar character who would not disturb the profile of the team? Every team has to have a degree of trust, and trust has a lot to do with implicit bias. People are inclined to fear what is different and trust what is familiar, and we see this tendency in Trump’s nominations.

In response, many conservatives have raised concerns about Jackson and her competency. For instance, Fox News host Tucker Carlson demanded that Jackson “show her papers” and her LSAT scores to the American public. Carlson, along with other reporters and politicians, had nothing of the sort to say about some of the white, male, Ivy League law school students who serve as Justices. This difference is because, simply put, Carlson and the like do not trust different perspectives that do not fit in with the expected Supreme Court Justice profile. Carlson allowed his fear of diversity to cloud his understanding of Jackson’s competency, and Trump’s goal of upholding a unanimous in-group proved more important to him than the benefits of picking new, diverse candidates.

As demonstrated by the Challenger disaster, groupthink can be detrimental to a team. The Supreme Court is no exception. Consider the Supreme Court’s position on segregation in the past. In the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, they ruled that black and white people should be “separate but equal,” segregating public facilities for the next 60 years. There were no black members of the Supreme Court who had a say in whether or not they thought that ruling was a good idea. There were no Justices who had experienced regulation from any of the Jim Crow laws, nor who had witnessed what the word “equal” really meant in the phrase “separate but equal.” Every member lacked experience when it came to evaluating segregation, reaching a decision that did not advocate for the US’s black population. It took about six decades for the Brown v. Board of Education verdict to change that ruling. It’s notable that Thurgood Marshall was chief attorney for the plaintiffs (and later the first Black Supreme Court Justice) and that his experiences allowed him to approach the situation differently, which played a key role in the verdict. Despite Marshall’s efforts, the court was divided when the case first came to bat, and Justice Fred Vinson fought to uphold Plessy. It is key to note here that the only reason Vinson’s opinion did not have more serious consequences to the ruling was because he died before it was made and was replaced with a Justice of a different opinion.

Groupthink is a serious issue in the Supreme Court because their biases impact the entire country, and their precedents can last decades. It is important that members of the court value making decisions that account for the varying backgrounds of US citizens far more than they value unanimity or comfort. The comfort of the Supreme Court was more important to the court in 1896 than the 60 years of suffering they caused by segregating America. Not only is there a clear reluctance to invite different viewpoints to the team, but most Justices have also ruled with the same opinions for so long that they easily disregard new perspectives.

Nominating a black woman cannot prevent these consequences from happening again in the future. Yes, nominating Jackson brings another voice to the table, but she is only one person. The Supreme Court is ultimately still dominated and imbalanced by white men. The minority is then susceptible to wanting to fit in with the shared perspectives of the majority. As the court decides on cases that require an understanding of different perspectives—for example, abortion or segregation, which are both issues that the Supreme Court has faced before—10 white men are at a higher risk of groupthink because all decision makers share uniform perspectives and experiences. Empirics prove that bringing different genders and ethnicities to the table avoids groupthink and allows decisions to be made with multiple perspectives in mind. The best situation is when everybody, not just a select few, on the team has a different background. This composition removes the desire to conform, because there is no profile to fit in with. Everyone has different viewpoints shaped by different experiences. In the future, Supreme Court nominees should continue to be diverse, until the Justices have backgrounds reflective of the entirety of the United States demographic.