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Ketanji Brown Jackson is the first Black woman ever to be nominated to serve in the United States (U.S) Supreme Court. Should Congress approve her nomination she will be the first Black woman appointed to serve as Justice in that country’s highest court and its 116th Associate Justice. The vote to confirm (or not confirm) is set for Monday, April 4.
51-year old Jackson has led a professional and personal life at once classic and unpredictable. Unlike most judges, her background is not as a prosecutor or major corporate lawyer, and her 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 was confirmed for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Prior to her becoming a judge, her legal experience was extensive and varied. While four members of the current court were at one time prosecutors, Jackson, if nominated, would be the first Supreme Court justice since Thurgood Marshall to have represented indigent criminal defendants.
At the White House event [rolling out her nomintion], Jackson opened her remarks by saying she was humbled by the nomination, noting that it came at a time when there was a lot going on in the world.
“I must begin these very brief remarks by thanking God for delivering me to this point in my professional journey,” she said. “My life has been blessed beyond measure and I do know that one can only come this far by faith.”
Later, she noted she shares a birthday with Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman ever to be appointed as a federal judge. Jackson said she stands on her shoulders and shares her commitment to equal justice under the law. “I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution … will inspire future generations of Americans,” Jackson said.
Work as a public defender
In addition to her work as a public defender, she practiced at law firms large and small and served as vice chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission at a time when it sought to reduce the draconian penalties for crack cocaine, penalties that were 100 times more severe than for powder cocaine. At the Sentencing Commission, she earned a reputation for building consensus, and most of the panel’s decisions were unanimous.
For Jackson, sentencing was not an abstract matter. One uncle is a former Miami police chief; another was a sex crimes detective; and her younger brother was a Baltimore police undercover agent. But her family also has had experience with the scourge of drugs. Her father’s older brother was sentenced to life in prison under a federal three-strikes law aimed at repeat drug offenders.
In 2012, Jackson was nominated for a seat on the federal trial court. Her confirmation went smoothly with numerous lawyers on the right, as well as the left, supporting the nomination. She was confirmed for the trial court by a voice vote in 2013.
As a trial judge, Jackson earned a reputation for hard work, a raucous laugh and more than 500 opinions, some of them noteworthy not just for the outcome but their length.
Perhaps the most prominent was an opinion ordering President Trump’s former White House counsel Don McGahn to appear before the House Judiciary Committee to testify in its investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. In it, she wrote, “Presidents are not kings. This means that they do not have subjects bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control.”
The opinion, which numbered some 119 pages, took four months to write, however, and allowed Trump to essentially run out the clock as president. Ultimately, McGahn did finally testify before the committee in 2021 after the Justice Department, by then under 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 that were contesting several executive orders limiting the collective bargaining rights of federal workers. A federal appeals court panel reversed her decision on grounds that the unions had to pursue their claims first through an agency administrative process, and only after that, the appeals court said, could the unions go to 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 construct a segment of the wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
From Miami to Harvard
Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., where her parents were schoolteachers. They soon moved to Miami, where her father went to law school and rose to become the school board’s top lawyer, while her mother became a school principal. One of her earliest memories of the law, she has said, was sitting next to her father in the evening while he studied law books and she worked on her coloring books.
In high school, Jackson was a national oratory champion, then graduated with honors from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, where she was an editor on the law review. She clerked for three federal judges, including Justice Breyer, the man she will replace.
Jackson met her husband, Patrick Jackson, when the two were at Harvard College. He was, she says, her first “serious boyfriend” and has remained that ever since. They have two daughters.
At first blush, they look like an improbable couple.
As she put it in a charming — and candid — speech at the University of Georgia law school in March 2017, “Patrick is a quintessential ‘Boston Brahmin’ — his family can be traced back to England before the Mayflower. … He and his twin brother are, in fact, the sixth generation in their family to graduate from Harvard College. By contrast, I am only the second generation in my family to go to any college, and I am fairly certain that if you traced my family lineage back past my grandparents — who were raised in Georgia, by the way — you would find that my ancestors were slaves on both sides.”
Federal Judge Patti Saris, who hired Jackson as a law clerk straight out of law school, recalls her husband, who now looks full-on prep, as 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 he would often go to the courtroom after a long night on call to watch what was going on.
As Saris remembers, the young doctor had often been up for 24-plus hours and looked incredibly scruffy, sitting in the back of the courtroom. Finally, one day, the judge’s courtroom marshal came up to her and whispered, “Judge, would you like me to remove the homeless man in the back row?”
The doctor, a star in the surgical world today, is the first to toot his wife’s horn.
Judge Brown said in that Georgia speech that being a federal judge was always her “dream job.”
(Abridged reporting from Nina Totenberg, NPR- 22/2/2022)