Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson: what you should know


Ketanji Brown Jackson.

By Adri Pray, Editor-at-large

President Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Feb. 25, hoping to fill the vacancy left by Justice Stephen Breyer on Jan. 27.

Following the Justice’s announcement of retirement from the lifetime appointment, Biden said he sought a candidate that had “exceptional credentials, unimpeachable character and unwavering dedication to the rule of law,” according to The White House website.

Jackson was born in Miami on Sept. 14, 1970 to Johnny and Ellery Brown, a public school teacher turned attorney and arts high school principal. She graduated from Harvard University magna cum laude, despite being discouraged by guidance counselors in high school from attending, and advanced to Harvard Law School, where she graduated cum laude.

After graduating, Jackson became Justice Breyer’s law clerk from 1999 to 2000, where she “learned the importance” of building consensus and understanding the Constitution. She moved on to become a public defender in Washington D.C., handling cases in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Following her time as a public defender—a position no Supreme Court nominee has held before—Jackson began receiving nominations and appointments to various roles within the U.S. District Court of Appeals and Court of Appeals by former President Barack Obama. 

Jackson was nominated by then-President Obama to the Vice Chair of the Sentencing Commission in 2009 and was confirmed in 2010. In 2012, she was nominated for district court judge of the U.S. District Court for D.C. and confirmed in 2013.

Confirmed in 2021, Jackson was one of Biden’s first nominations to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Her latest presidential nomination, received on Feb. 25, marks her fourth.

Jackson’s Senate confirmation hearings commenced last week and consisted of four days of questioning regarding her prior sentencing, career, and character. The first session began with opening statements from the Senate Judiciary Committee and Jackson herself—“the easiest day,” per Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Il. 

Senators like Cory Booker, D-N.J., noticed the historic nature of Jackson’s confirmation hearings. Booker said Jackson’s nomination “breaks an artificially confining mold of our past and opens up a more promising, potential-filled future for us all as Americans.”

Republican senators criticized Jackson’s previous sentencings regarding child pornography cases, citing “leniency,” while Democratic senators rebuked their claims, reminding the committee of previous scrutiny over Jackson’s sentencing when being confirmed for other positions.

A topic shared by both parties, rumors of “dark money”—funds raised by anonymous nonprofits to influence elections—circulated around Jackson’s nomination. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, expressed concern over liberal group Demand Justice because of its suggestions for potential nominees after Breyer’s retirement.

Tuesday, Republican scrutiny over Jackson’s sentencing continued, as Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. accused her of being sympathetic to child sex offenders and abusers—a claim tied to a string of conspiracies.

As a mother, Jackson said, she takes crimes against children seriously, calling on Congress to alter the laws on sex abuse materials.

Republicans asked Jackson about her view on the expansion of the Supreme Court, to which she gave an answer that echoed Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s ideology.

“In my view, judges should not be speaking to political issues and certainly not a nominee for a position on the Supreme Court,” Jackson said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked Jackson why she called former President George W. Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield “war criminals,” but the claim was debunked by Durbin following a fact-check during a brief recess that made it apparent Jackson had made no such comparison.

During his time, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, attempted to link Jackson to critical race theory despite her repeated refutations against the accusation, as she said it “doesn’t come up in [her] line of work as a judge.” When questioning critical race theory’s connection to Georgetown Day School—where Jackson serves as a member of the board of trustees—Jackson said the board doesn’t control the school’s curriculum.

To end the second day, Jackson defended her record as a public defender for Guantanamo Bay detainees, noting that she did not pick her clients.

Jackson affirmed that she would apply the Constitution’s original ideas to modern-day contexts, during the opening of Wednesday’s session.

Durbin spent his time refuting claims made by Republican senators, some of whom claimed he was “editorializing,” inciting an argument between Durbin and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.

Graham continued questioning Jackson’s child pornography, illegal immigration, and other previous sentencings but was cut off for time.

Cruz pressed on about critical race theory and interrupted Jackson as she tried to answer, prompting Durbin to advise Jackson to not answer the question, as Cruz would continue to interrupt her. Hawley and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., continued Cruz’s line of questioning. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., questioned Jackson on her line of work as a public defender.

Many Democratic senators affirmed Jackson’s qualifications and reassured her she would be confirmed in a timely manner.

Jackson said she would recuse herself from a case concerning Harvard University’s race-conscious admissions policy to gain more Hispanic and Black students if appointed to the Supreme Court.

The final day of questioning commenced outside the Senate Judiciary Committee with testimony from external witnesses and representatives from the American Bar Association. The ABA said Jackson was overqualified and wasn’t worried about her child pornography sentencings.

Blackburn requested the private records of pre-sentencing child pornography cases, but was denied by Durbin, citing a moral obligation to protect those harmed by the case. Blackburn accused Durbin of withholding the records from Republican senators, but Durbin assured her no one had access to them. 

Durbin determined the committee would make its executive decision on March 28 and would vote on April 4.

On Wednesday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, confirmed her vote for Jackson after holding a separate meeting with Jackson that “alleviated” Collins’ previous concerns. Collins’ vote marks the first confirmed GOP vote towards Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation.

If the majority of the committee approves Jackson’s nomination, she will move on to the full Senate vote. The 11 Democratic and 11 Republican senators could deadlock, canceling each other out in a vote. Their decision will take place on April 4.