Washington: The judge President Joe Biden has chosen to fulfill his historic pledge to name the first Black woman to the Supreme Court would also bring rare experience of defending poor people charged with crimes.
While Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson shares the elite educational background of current justices, she would be the first justice since Thurgood Marshall, the legendary civil rights lawyer who was the first Black person on the court, with significant criminal defence work on her resume. She also spent time advocating on behalf of people held without charge at Guantanamo Bay.
“I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded, will inspire future generations of Americans,’’ she said at the White House unveiling of her nomination Friday.
Biden said in introducing Jackson on Friday that she learned from Breyer’s “willingness to work with colleagues with different viewpoints.” And he said her experience serving as a trial court judge before her nomination to an appeals court was also “a critical qualification’’ in his view. Of the current court, only Justice Sonia Sotomayor — the court’s first Latina — ever served as a trial judge.
Jackson could face some criticism because she doesn’t have a very long record as a federal appeals court judge. Biden nominated her to her current position on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last year.
One thing Biden also likely found attractive about the choice was that Jackson won some Republican support when she was nominated to the appeals court, getting confirmed by a 53-44 vote. Three Republican senators voted for her: South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. Another GOP connection: Jackson is related by marriage to former House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, and for her integrity, is unequivocal,’’ Ryan said Friday on Twitter.
Over the course of her career since, Jackson has worked for large law firms but also was a public defender. After she was nominated to serve on the US Sentencing Commission, the agency that develops federal sentencing policy, she taught herself to knit to deal with the stress of the nomination and confirmation process, she has said. As a commissioner, she was part of a unanimous vote to allow thousands of people already in federal prison for crack-related crimes get their sentences reduced as a result of a new law.
WHO IS KETANJI BROWN JACKSON?
Jackson, 51, is a graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School and currently a federal appeals court judge in Washington. She spent a year as a young lawyer working for the justice she would replace, Justice Stephen Breyer, who is retiring.
Jackson was nominated by President Biden in 2021 to serve on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and confirmed by the Senate last June. She previously sat on the D.C. district court, nominated by former President Barack Obama and confirmed in 2013. She worked as a law clerk for Breyer early in her career and served on the US Sentencing Commission, the agency that develops federal sentencing policy.
In accepting the nomination Friday, Jackson said she hopes her life, career and love of country and the Constitution “will inspire future generations of Americans.’’
Jackson was born in Washington, DC, but grew up in Miami. She has said that her parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, chose her name to express their pride in her family’s African ancestry. They asked an aunt who was in the Peace Corps in Africa at the time to send a list of African girls’ names and they picked Ketanji Onyika, which they were told meant “lovely one.”
HOW DID SHE FIND INTEREST IN LAW?
She traces her interest in the law to when she was in preschool and her father was in law school and they would sit together at the dining room table, she with coloring books and he with law books. Her father, whom she described Friday as her “first professional role model.” became an attorney for the county school board and her mom was a high school principal.
She also has family in law enforcement. Her younger brother was a police officer in Baltimore and served in the Army before becoming a lawyer. Two uncles were also police officers.
In high school, Jackson was the president of her public high school class and a debate champion. Stephen F. Rosenthal, a classmate and friend from Miami who also went to college and law school with her, called her a “natural leader” and someone with “penetrating intelligence.’’
Also at Harvard she met her husband, Patrick Jackson, a surgeon. The couple has two daughters, Leila, who is in high school, and her older sister, Talia, who is in college.
The two married in 1996, a few years before Jackson worked for Breyer on the Supreme Court. Deborah Pearlstein, a law clerk to Justice John Paul Stevens the same year Jackson worked for Breyer, recalled Jackson as funny, insightful and “incredibly good at her job.’’
HOW JACKSON OVERSAW 'PIZZAGATE'
Prison isn’t a distant concept for Jackson. She has an uncle who received a life sentence for a drug-related crime until it was commuted by former President Barack Obama.
Jackson’s work on the Sentencing Commission paved the way for her to become a federal judge. In one of her most high-profile decisions as a trial judge, she ordered former White House counsel Don McGahn to appear before Congress. It was a setback to former President Donald Trump’s effort to keep his top aides from testifying. The case was appealed and a deal was ultimately reached for McGahn’s testimony.
In 2019, Jackson temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s plan to expand fast-track deportations of people in the country illegally, no matter where they are arrested. But she was overruled when the case was appealed.
Another highly visible case Jackson oversaw involved the online conspiracy theory “pizzagate,” unfounded internet rumours about prominent Democrats harbouring child sex slaves at a Washington pizza restaurant. A North Carolina man showed up at the restaurant with an AR-15 assault rifle and a revolver. Jackson called it “sheer luck’’ no one was injured and sentenced him to four years in prison.
Jackson has a considerably shorter record as an appeals court judge, having written just two opinions. One opinion for a unanimous three-judge panel was a decision that came out in favor of labour unions.
In earlier votes she joined colleagues in declining to stop the Biden administration from enforcing a freeze on evictions put in place during the coronavirus pandemic and ruled against an effort by Trump to shield documents from the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. Those decisions were appealed to the Supreme Court and the justices allowed evictions to resume, but also allowed the documents’ release.
As far as the current Supreme Court opening, Jackson has previously had the endorsement of the man she would replace. When officials called Breyer in the course of her original nomination to be a federal judge, Breyer reportedly picked up the phone and started the conversation with two words: “Hire her.”
WHY IS JACKSON’S NOMINATION HISTORIC?
Jackson would be the first Black female justice in the court’s more than 200 years of existence.
Of the 115 justices who have served, there have been just five women, beginning with Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. One of the five, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, is a Latina. The others have all been white -- O’Connor, Coney Barrett, Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.
Clarence Thomas and the late Thurgood Marshall are the only two Black men who have served on the court.