Historic court pick brings rare criminal defense experience
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 defense 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.
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.
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 U.S. 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, R-Wis.
“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.
Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., 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.”
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.”
At Harvard, she studied government but also was involved in drama and musical theater and part of an improv group called On Thin Ice. At one point she was assigned actor Matt Damon as a drama class partner, she has said, acknowledging he probably wouldn’t remember her. He does not, Damon confirmed through a representative.
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.”
“I don’t know anybody there at the time who didn’t get along with Ketanji,” Pearlstein said.
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 U.S. 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.
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 rumors about prominent Democrats harboring 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 labor 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 Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. 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.”