- David Williams
Ketanji Brown Jackson: A Profile of the Newest Supreme Court Justice
On April 7, the Senate voted to confirm President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. The move fulfilled Biden’s promise to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court, but the weight of Jackson’s confirmation extends far beyond her place as the first Black woman to sit on the nation’s highest court. Jackson brings a unique outlook to the court informed by her time spent in public defense and bipartisan coalition building. From ethos to experience, Jackson displays a firm commitment to justice that stems from her upbringing and storied career.
Born in Washington, Jackson spent most of her childhood in Florida, where she excelled academically as the student body president in high school and as an elite debater. She then attended Harvard Undergrad and Harvard Law, entering the legal world with excellent qualifications.
Jackson continued her record of success as a lawyer, working at four elite law firms. She also attained three federal clerkships at the U.S. district level, the U.S court of appeals, and finally the Supreme Court. Her final courtship was with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who she now replaces as he is set to retire at the end of the current court term.
She officially left private practice in 2010, becoming a commissioner on the US Sentencing Commission. The commission is a bipartisan, independent agency that sets sentencing guidelines for the federal courts and is notable for its overwhelmingly unanimous decisions, speaking to Jackson’s ability to collaborate and build coalitions. Perhaps the most notable decision during her stint on the commission came when the body unanimously voted to lower federal drug sentencing, lowering sentences for 30,000 federal prisoners.
In 2013, Jackson became a judge on the US district court for the District of Columbia, where she was praised by then Speaker of The House, Paul Ryan (R-WI): "I know she is clearly qualified," Ryan said. "But it bears repeating just how qualified she is." In 2021, she ascended to the US Court of Appeals, the nation's “second highest court.” There, she replaced former Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, who had accepted a place as head of the Department of Justice.
These achievements, while glowing, are not unusual for a supreme court justice. What does stand out is Jackson’s two years serving as a public defender from 2005 to 2007. Jackson is the first public defender to ever serve on the Supreme Court, a fact far more significant than it may sound at first glance.
Public defenders, otherwise known as criminal defense attorneys, are assigned to defend people in criminal cases that cannot afford a lawyer. They make up a shockingly small percentage of federal judges nationwide. A study by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, found only 7% of federal judges were former public defenders. Some of the disparity can be attributed to former President Donald Trump’s time in office, as he appointed ten times as many prosecutors than criminal defense attorneys, although the trend persisted long before his administration.
Jackson is now the first public defender to serve on the Supreme Court and the first justice with criminal defense experience since Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the court, who retired in 1991. This experience has greatly informed how Jackson operates as a judge, as she takes care to closely communicate with defendants, as she remembers many former clients who did not understand the system they were thrust into.
“I speak to them directly," Jackson said, "I want them to know what is going on."
During Jackson’s congressional hearings in 2021, while being considered for the federal appeals court, she highlighted the value of her defense work. She was struck by how few defendants understood the legal system, and as such felt that unless extra care was taken to help them, it was impossible to honor the constitutional right to a fair trial.
“I think that’s really important for our entire justice system because it’s only if people understand what they’ve done, why it’s wrong, and what will happen to them if they do it again that they can really start to rehabilitate,” Jackson emphasized.
Given the current conservative composition of the Supreme Court, Jackson is unlikely to be the deciding vote on cases but giving public defenders like her a seat at the table adds a valuable and unique voice to the court’s decisions. She heads a revolutionary push by President Biden to shift the balance of the federal judiciary, who as of now is the first president to nominate more public defenders than prosecutors to the court system.
Jackson was confirmed by a 53-47 margin, with senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Mitt Romney (R-UT) siding with Democrats to form the necessary bipartisan majority. Her swearing-in will occur sometime this summer once the court’s current term ends and Justice Breyer steps down.
Jackson’s appointment to the Supreme Court marks a commitment to diversity, expertise, and qualifications. Jackson’s experiences as a public defender and as a Black woman bring new perspectives that the Supreme Court has never had before. Her solid qualifications speak to her credibility as a judge and legal expert. Regardless of the court’s overall slant, Jackson is likely to become a leading liberal voice on the nation’s highest court and one who will strive to see justice doled out with a firm but fair hand.