Ketanji Brown Jackson, one of President Biden’s top nominees for the United States Supreme Court, led a professional and personal life that was both classic and unpredictable. Unlike most judges, his background is not that of a major corporate attorney or attorney, and his personal life also defies stereotypes.
Professionally, she is an experienced judge. For eight years she served as a federal trial court judge, and last June she was confirmed for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Before becoming a judge, his legal experience was vast and varied. While four members of the current court served as prosecutors, Jackson, if appointed, would be the first Supreme Court justice since Thurgood Marshall to represent indigent defendants.
Work as a public defender
In addition to her work as a public defender, she has practiced at law firms large and small, and served as vice chair of the US Sentencing Commission at a time when she sought to reduce draconian penalties for crack cocaine, 100 times tougher. than for powder cocaine. At the Sentencing Commission, she gained a reputation for building consensus, and most of the panel’s decisions were unanimous.
For Jackson, sentencing was not an abstract matter. An uncle is a former Miami police chief; another was a sex crimes detective; and his younger brother was an undercover officer with the Baltimore police. But his family also experienced the scourge of drugs. His father’s older brother was sentenced to life in prison under a federal three-strike law targeting repeat drug offenders.
After more than 15 years behind bars, he reached out to Jackson, then a public defender, for help. According to The Washington Post, Jackson felt sympathy for his uncle, but saw no legal options for him at the time. Later, however, after learning that the Wilmer Hale law firm handled clemency cases for free, she referred her uncle to the firm. the To post quoted Wilmer Hale as saying that the case was dismissed “years before Judge Jackson became a federal judge” and that “she was no longer involved in the case”. Eventually, the uncle is said to be one of 1,700 people whose sentences for nonviolent drug crimes have been commuted by President Obama, more than the last 12 presidents combined. At the time of the uncle’s release, he was 78 years old and in poor health. He died four months later, according to the To post.
In 2012, Jackson was nominated for a seat on the federal trial court. His confirmation went smoothly with many lawyers on both right and left backing the nomination. She was confirmed for the trial court by voice vote in 2013.
As a trial judge, Jackson earned a reputation for hard work, a hoarse laugh, and more than 500 opinions, some notable not just for outcome, but also for length.
Perhaps most significant was a notice ordering former President Trump White House counsel Don McGahn to appear before the House Judiciary Committee to testify in its investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the election. of 2016. She wrote: “Presidents are not kings. This means that they have no subjects bound by loyalty or blood, whose fate they have the right to control. The opinion, which ran to some 119 pages, however, took four months to write and essentially ran out of time for Trump as president. Ultimately, McGahn finally testified before the committee in 2021 after the Justice Department, then under the control of the Biden administration, and the committee reached an agreement on the terms of his testimony.
In 2018, Jackson, in another decision against Trump, ruled in favor of federal employee unions challenging several executive orders limiting the collective bargaining rights of federal workers. A federal appeals court panel reversed its decision on the grounds that the unions must first pursue their claims through an agency administrative process, and only after that, said the court of appeal, that the unions could appeal to the federal court.
In another Trump-era case, Jackson sided with the administration, concluding that the Department of Homeland Security could waive more than two dozen environmental laws in order to build a segment of the wall along the US border with Mexico.
Grilled by Senate Republicans over the race
Jackson’s appointment to the DC Circuit also went relatively smoothly following his nomination by President Biden last year. Yet she was fairly criticized by some Conservative senators on the Judiciary Committee. Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo., for example, asked him this question: “Do you think the American criminal justice system is systemically racist or is infected with systemic racism and bias?”
“These are not terms that I use in law when we look at issues of race,” she replied, adding that when considering whether there has been racial discrimination, courts “will generally look for lawyers to prove discriminatory intent, discriminatory impact, in some cases, retaliation. There is no Supreme Court doctrine that talks about systemic racism,” and those “are not words that I have ever used in court to make claims based on the constitution or applicable laws”.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked her about her representation of clients in a case involving prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Jackson said she filed a friend of the court brief, representing 20 former federal judges who wanted to argue that evidence obtained through torture would not have been accepted by English courts in the common law system that is the basis of ours. Cruz insisted more, asking her what had led her to take charge of the case. She replied that she worked in a large law firm and was responsible for representing the firm’s clients, which in this case were a group of judges.
When Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., also questioned her about the case, she noted that at the time she was assigned to work on it, her brother had been deployed to Iraq with the military. . And in a follow-up written response, she said she was “very aware” of the threat posed by the 9/11 attack.
Ultimately, she was confirmed by a vote of 53 to 44, with three Republican senators supporting her – Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and the Republican-ranking Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham.
In appeals court, she recently served on a unanimous panel that upheld a congressional subpoena for White House records related to the Jan. 6 riots. When Trump appealed to the Supreme Court, the justices left the lower court’s decision untouched.
From Miami to Harvard
Jackson, was born in Washington, DC, where her parents were teachers. They soon moved to Miami where her father went to law school and became the school board’s top lawyer, while her mother became a school principal. One of her earliest law memories, she said, was sitting next to her father in the evenings as he studied law books and she worked on her coloring books.
In high school, Jackson was a national eloquence champion, then graduated with honors from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, where she served as editor of the law journal. She worked for three federal judges, including Judge Stephen Breyer, the man she could replace.
Jackson met her husband, Patrick Jackson, when the two were at Harvard College. He was, she says, her first “serious boyfriend” and has been since. They have two daughters.
At first glance, they look like an unlikely couple.
As she said in a charming – and candid – speech to the University of Georgia Law School in March 2017, “Patrick is a quintessential ‘Boston Brahmin’ – his family goes back to England before the Mayflower … He and his twin brother are, in fact, the sixth generation of their family to graduate from Harvard College. In contrast, I am only the second generation of my family to go to any college, and I’m pretty sure if you traced my family line back to my grandparents — who were raised in Georgia, by the way — you’d find that my ancestors were slaves on both sides.
Federal Judge Patti Saris, who hired Jackson as a paralegal straight out of law school, remembers her husband looking completely prepared now, when he was less so back then. At the time, he was a surgical resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, but he was so fascinated by his wife’s work that he often went into the courtroom after a long night on call to watch what was going on. . As Saris recalls, the young doctor had often been up for more than 24 hours and looked incredibly scruffy, sitting in the back of the courtroom. Finally, one day, the judge’s courtroom marshal approached her and whispered, “Judge, do you want me to remove the homeless man from the back row?
The doctor, star of the world of surgery today, is the first to honk his horn.
Judge Brown said in that Georgia speech that being a federal judge has always been his “dream job.” But after Obama nominated her in 2012, securing that position was entirely dependent on events beyond her control, namely Obama’s re-election.
“And when you add to that,” she said, “the fact that I’m related by marriage to… Paul Ryan [then the House speaker]who was running for Vice President against President Obama at the time, you can get a sense of what that time was like for me.”
As difficult as that confirmation may have seemed at the time, it may, in hindsight, seem like a picnic to what she might face as a nominee for the United States Supreme Court.