Ketanji Jackson is a favorite for Biden’s historic Supreme Court pick
U.S. Appeals Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the front-runner for a historic Supreme Court nomination, graduated with high honors from Harvard College, was an editor of the Harvard Law Review and a law clerk for Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
But she credits her years as a high school debater and national champion with setting her on a path to success in law.
“Of all the various things that I’ve done, it is my high school experience as a competitive speaker that taught me how to lean in despite the obstacles,” she told law students at the University of Georgia in 2017. “I learned how to reason and how to write,” she said, adding it gave her “the self-confidence that can sometimes be quite difficult for women and minorities to develop at an early age.”
Jackson, 51, never stopped leaning in. She has been the favorite for the next Supreme Court seat since President Biden won the 2020 election after promising to make history by appointing the first Black woman to the high court.
President Obama first appointed her as a federal district judge in 2013 and considered her as a possible nominee to fill the seat of Justice Antonin Scalia when he died suddenly six years ago.
Last year, the Senate confirmed her 53 to 44 as Biden’s choice for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. That court has often been a stepping stone to a Supreme Court nomination, including for Scalia and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Brett M. Kavanaugh as well as Merrick Garland, whose nomination was blocked in 2016.
Those who know Jackson say she always drew praise and respect.
“Even among that rarified crowd of law clerks, she stood out — not only because of her sharp intellect and keen ability to identify and analyze legal issues, but also for her natural leadership skills,” said Sonja West, a University of Georgia law professor. She “knows how to bring people together, build their trust and bring down the temperature in the room. Yet she also has a fearless confidence in her opinions.”
Jackson met her husband at Harvard. Dr. Patrick G. Jackson, a surgeon, was the sixth generation of his family to go to Harvard, the judge said, and his brother is related by marriage to former House Speaker Paul Ryan. The Jacksons have two daughters who are 21 and 17.
Jackson was born in Washington in 1970, the daughter of two schoolteachers. But she and her parents moved to Miami three years later. Her father went to law school at night and later became an attorney for the school district. Her mother rose through the ranks and became the principal of Miami’s high school for the arts.
She has a strong rooting section among her debate team friends from her Miami high school. They include Stanford law professor Nate Persily, who described her as “a star in the making.” Miami’s former U.S. attorney, Ben Greenberg, was her prom date as well as debate partner.
In her senior year in 1988, she was the student body president and won the national oratory title at the National Catholic Forensic League Championship in New Orleans.
“All of us high school debaters were idealistic and had dreams of either arguing in the Supreme Court or being a Supreme Court justice. But if we had to vote who was the most likely to end up on the court, Ketanji Brown Jackson would have been the unanimous choice,” said David O. Marcus, a prominent criminal defense attorney in South Florida. “She was so smart, dynamic, charming and friendly — and a star debate champion. Our old high school debate crew is rooting very hard for her.”
After law school, Jackson clerked for a federal district judge and the U.S. appeals court in Boston before moving to Washington. She worked for a time at two law firms, as a public defender and as a top official of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines on prison terms.
Progressives cite those experiences as strong reasons for choosing her. They say the justices have been overrepresented with corporate lawyers and top government officials, yet none since Thurgood Marshall has represented criminal defendants.
“We’ve never had a justice who worked as a public defender,” said Christopher Kang, chief counsel for Demand Justice and former deputy counsel for Obama.
Rachel Barkow, an NYU law professor and former Scalia clerk, met Jackson when they were Harvard law students.
“I think she’d make an outstanding Supreme Court justice,” Barkow said. “She’s smart, fair-minded and as decent a human being as you will ever meet. And I think it’s terrific she brings a perspective in criminal law from her work in the federal public defenders’ office and from her time at the [Sentencing] Commission that is lacking on the current court.”
Jackson’s legal views are not yet clear.
She filed her first opinion for the D.C. Circuit Court on Tuesday, a 3-0 ruling that rejected a change in federal labor rules that would have prevented unions from challenging new personnel policies.
For the most part, the appeals court decides regulatory disputes, and Jackson does not have a track record of rulings or other writings on controversies such asabortion, guns or religion that divide the justices along ideological lines.
She did, however, write a long and strongly worded opinion in 2019 rejecting former White House Counsel Donald McGahn’s claim of “absolute immunity” from testifying before a House committee. The Trump White House simply refused to honor subpoenas issued by Congress, and Jackson said doing so violated the separation-of-powers principle written into the Constitution.
“Blatant defiance of Congress’ centuries-old power to compel the performance of witnesses is not an abstract injury, nor is it a mere banal insult to our democracy,” she wrote in Committee on the Judiciary vs. McGahn. “It is an affront to the mechanism for curbing abuses of power that the framers carefully crafted for our protection.”
And for that reason, the president does not have the right or authority to order all of his former aides to refuse to testify, she said. “Stated simply, the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that presidents are not kings. ... Rather, in this land of liberty, it is indisputable that current and former employees of the White House work for the people of the United States, and that they take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
In December, she joined a three-judge ruling of the appeals court that rejected former President Trump’s claim of “executive privilege” over White House documents that were sought by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Last month, the Supreme Court turned down Trump’s appeal of that decision, with only Thomas registering a dissent.
Jackson’s judicial experience — eight years as a federal district judge and less than one year on the appeals court — is more than that of several justices and less than others, depending on the measure.
Among the current members of the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s first nominee, had the most experience in total, with six years as a district judge and 11 years on an appeals court. Obama’s second nominee, Justice Elena Kagan, had the least. She was a former dean of the Harvard Law School and the U.S. solicitor general, but had never been a judge before joining the court in 2010.
Before their nominations, Thomas had served one year on the appeals court, while Roberts served two years and Justice Amy Coney Barrett three years.
In the past, presidents have chosen nominees for the high court for reasons of geographic or political balance, religion, race or gender, not because they were the most qualified lawyer in the nation based on some objective measure.
President Nixon had been determined to put a Southerner on the court, even after two of his appeals court nominees from the South were voted down. In 1971, he nominated Lewis Powell, a lawyer from Richmond, Va. The same day, he filled a second seat by choosing an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, William Rehnquist, who had graduated first in his Stanford law class. Neither had been a judge before, but Rehnquist went on to serve for 33 years, including 19 as the chief justice.
President Reagan had promised to choose the first woman for the high court. His aides said there were no well-qualified Republican women on the U.S. appeals courts, so he nominated a mid-level state appeals court judge from Arizona named Sandra Day O’Connor. She was, it was noted, a top graduate in the same Stanford law class as Rehnquist, and she went on to serve for 24 years as one of the court’s most influential justices.
Marshall was a legendary civil rights lawyer and the first Black justice. When he retired in 1991, only one Black Republican had been appointed to a U.S. appeals court in the last 10 years. He was a 43-year-old agency official with a limited legal background.
But when President George H.W. Bush announced his nomination of Clarence Thomas, he dismissed the suggestion that race played a role. “The fact that he is Black and a minority has nothing to do with this since he is the best qualified at this time,” Bush told reporters.
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