Ketanji Brown Jackson combines a powerful resume with the potential to fill long-standing gaps at the U.S. Supreme Court.
She fulfills President Joe Biden’s promise to nominate the first Black woman to the court while bringing an unusual set of professional experiences, including a background as a public defender and a record of work on disparities in criminal punishment.
“That’s an asset,” said Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor who worked with Jackson on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. “We just haven’t had people with that experience on there.”
Jackson, 51, also has the pedigree of other justices: two Harvard degrees and nearly a decade as a federal judge. In his first batch of judicial nominations last year, Biden selected Jackson for the D.C. based federal appeals court that’s been a springboard for three sitting justices.
Jackson grew up in Miami where her father worked as a lawyer for the county school board and her mother was the principal of a magnet school.
Her dad’s decision to go to law school when she was a toddler got her interested in law, Jackson said Friday at a White House event. “Some of my earliest memories are of him sitting at the kitchen table, reading his law books,” she said.
After attending a high school debate tournament at Harvard, Jackson decided that’s where she wanted to go to college. “There are those who told her she shouldn’t set her sights too high,” Biden said while introducing her. “But she refused to accept limits other set for her.”
She did attend Harvard University—and also earned a degree from Harvard Law School.
Jackson then secured a clerkship with the man she’d replace on the high court if confirmed, Justice Stephen Breyer, in the 1999-2000 term.
Years later, during hearings on Jackson’s nomination by Barack Obama to be a federal judge, a vetting committee quoted Breyer describing her as brilliant. “She is a mix of common sense, thoughtfulness. She is decent. She is very smart and has the mix of skills and experience we need on the bench,” he said.
Early in her career, Jackson worked for Goodwin Procter, a corporate law firm in Boston, but struggled to balance the intense schedule with the pressures of parenting her young daughter.
“Like so many women who enter Big Law, I soon found it extremely challenging,” she said in a 2017 speech at the University of Georgia. “You start to feel as though the demands of the billable hour are constantly in conflict with the needs of your children and your family responsibilities.”
Biden touted her status as a “working mother” Friday, noting that she has two daughters.
In 2003, she became an assistant special counsel at the Sentencing Commission, which develops guidelines for federal courts.
Two years later, Jackson joined the appellate division of the federal public defender’s office in Washington. There, she won an unlikely victory in a complex tax case involving documents the defendant had produced under a grant of immunity.
At oral arguments, Jackson “did an incredible job of explaining it in a way that made it comprehensible,” said A.J. Kramer, who runs the public defender’s office.
During her time as a public defender, Jackson received a request for help from a relative who was serving a life sentence under a “three strikes” law for a nonviolent drug crime, the Washington Post reported. Jackson referred the matter to a law firm that took the case pro bono. Eventually the relative, Thomas Brown, was one of more than 1,700 people whose sentences were commuted by the Obama administration.
“You may have read that I have one uncle who got caught up in the drug trade, and received a life sentence. That is true,” Jackson said Friday. “But law enforcement also runs in my family.”
Obama nominated Jackson for a seat on the sentencing commission in 2009. While she was eventually confirmed, the vetting process lasted for more than six months. “I actually taught myself to knit as a way to channel my nervous energy,” she said in the 2017 speech.
Jackson endured an even more stressful wait for confirmation after her next appointment. In September 2012, she was nominated for the U.S. District Court in Washington. But with the presidential election just weeks away, the Senate adjourned without considering her.
That delay raised the prospect that Jackson could lose a lifetime appointment to the federal bench if Obama was defeated for re-election by Republican Mitt Romney and his running mate, former House Speaker Paul Ryan. The election was unusually personal for Jackson: Ryan’s sister is married to the twin brother of Jackson’s husband, a Washington surgeon.
“I was unusually jumpy,” Jackson said in the 2017 speech, “and started so many scarves that I could’ve outfitted a small army.”
Obama won and the Senate by voice vote confirmed her to the bench in March 2013.
In Jackson’s most prominent case as a D.C. District judge, she ruled in 2019 that former White House counsel Don McGahn had to testify at a House impeachment hearing, despite the objection of then-President Donald Trump. The case is now on appeal at the D.C. Circuit.
“Presidents are not kings,” she wrote in a 120-page ruling. “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.”
Jackson also ruled against the Trump administration when she blocked a regulation aimed at speeding up deportations, though her decision was reversed on appeal.
She prevented Trump’s Health and Human Services Department from terminating grants to groups that work to reduce teen pregnancies. And she partially backed the AFL-CIO in a case over new National Labor Relations Board rules governing union elections.
But Jackson sided with Trump in 2019, when she said environmental groups couldn’t challenge construction of the president’s border wall, another hot-button immigration issue. The Supreme Court refused to review that ruling.
Jackson has earned a reputation as a warm and relaxed presence on the bench, willing to give lawyers ample time to make their arguments.
“She was not gruff at all—she was very polite, very personable,” said Ana Reyes, a lawyer at the law firm Williams & Connolly who argued a case before Jackson in 2016. “She really had questions she wanted answers to and did not give away how she was thinking about the case.”
Jackson met with Obama when he was evaluating candidates for the vacancy left by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Obama ultimately selected Judge Merrick Garland, but Senate Republicans refused to consider the nomination.
Five years later, Biden picked Jackson to replace Garland on the D.C. Circuit when he became attorney general. Three Republican senators voted for Jackson when she was confirmed in June 2021.
Though she hasn’t been on the appeals court long—and has only produced two written opinions—Curt Levey, president of the conservative Committee for Justice said her work shows a distrust of Republican administrations. In one, Jackson agreed with a labor union’s challenge to a Trump-era rule governing collective bargaining.
Both of her opinions were for a unanimous court, drawing no dissents.
Alliance for Justice Legal Director Daniel Goldberg said Jackson’s work on the D.C. Circuit has been consistent with her work on the district court, showing she’s concerned “with the rights of all people, not just the wealthy and powerful.”
—With assistance from David Yaffe-Bellany and Ellen M. Gilmer