What to Know About Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Historic Nomination to the Supreme Court

Jackson, a 51-year-old Harvard graduate and former public defender, would be the first Black woman on the Court

Judge Jackson stands at a podium and smiles, wearing glasses, a string of pearls, a purple top and a black blazer. In the background, President Biden smiles and stands in front of an American flag
President Biden announced his pick to fill the US Supreme Court vacancy on Friday: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images

Last week, President Joseph R. Biden announced his nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the United States Supreme Court. If confirmed, Jackson would be the first Black woman to sit on the nation’s highest court and will sit alongside the Court's second Black justice, Clarence Thomas.

Jackson would also be the first former federal public defender on the bench, reports Candice Norwood for the 19th. Supporters say that this work, her time as assistant special counsel to the US Sentencing Commission and the lawyer’s own unique life experience would give Jackson a particular expertise on issues of criminal justice reform.

Biden's announcement made good on a 2020 presidential campaign pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court.

“For too long our government, our courts haven’t looked like America,” the president said Friday, as Katie Rogers reports for the New York Times. “I believe it is time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation.”

A Black woman with shoulder length braids raises her right hand and smiles at a swearing-in ceremony. She wears a black blazer, a yellow top with black flowers and glasses.
If confirmed, Jackson would be the first Black woman to serve on the US Supreme Court. Photo by Kevin Lamarque-Pool / Getty Images

Jackson’s confirmation would not change the ideological balance of the court, which holds steady at six conservative justices to three liberal justices after the 2020 death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Jackson would fill the seat vacated by the retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, who she clerked for early in her professional career. 

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Miami, Jackson attended Harvard University for both undergraduate and law school. She served as a district judge on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia from 2013 until June 2021. In a short speech after Biden announced her nomination, Jackson expressed gratitude to her parents, two former public-school administrators, for their early support. When Jackson was a young child, her father left his job as a history teacher and entered law school.

“Some of my earliest memories are of him sitting at the kitchen table reading his law books,” Jackson recalled. “He became my first professional role model.”

Jackson also acknowledged the historical nature of her nomination, noting that she happens to share a birthday with another groundbreaking Black lawyer, Judge Constance Baker Motley. Motley was the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge, as well as the first to argue a case before the Supreme Court. Motley and Jackson were born 49 years apart to the day, on September 14.

“Today I proudly stand on Judge Motley’s shoulders, sharing not only her birthday but also her steadfast and courageous commitment to equal justice under the law,” Jackson said.

A black and white image. Three people look out of frame as they enter a car, including Martin Luther King Jr, a Black man in suit and tie; Constance Baker Motley, a tall Black woman in pearls and sweater set; and William Kunstler, a white man in a suit
Judge Constance Baker Motley was a pathbreaking Black lawyer who fought against Jim Crow legislation and defended the rights of protesters for racial justice across the segregated American South. From left to right, pictured in Albany, Georgia in 1962: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Motley, and lawyer William Kunstler. Bettmann / Getty Images

The judge also emphasized her personal connections to law enforcement, noting that her brother and several uncles have served as police officers. She also referred to another uncle who wound up on the other side of the law: Thomas Brown was sentenced to a life in prison in 1989 for possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, report Patricia Mazzei and Charlie Savage for the New York Times.

Now begins the tricky—and, as of late, often contentious—process of confirmation hearings, where members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will interrogate Jackson about her legal career and record. Hearings are expected to be held later this month, reports Carl Hulse for the New York Times.

For nearly two centuries, the Court's bench consisted of exclusively white men; of the 120 justices to serve on the highest national court since its creation, 115 have been men and 117 have been white.

Jackson would be the sixth woman to serve on the court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the court in 1981. “It’s good to be first,” the judge used to say to her law clerks, as Evan Thomas reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2019. “But you don’t want to be the last.”

And with current Justice Thomas on the bench, Jackson would become the third Black justice in the court’s history. Justice Thurgood Marshall broke barriers in 1967 when he became the first African American judge appointed to court.

Some 15 years earlier, Marshall, then an NAACP attorney, had argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, leading to the court’s landmark ruling against racial segregation in public schools.

It was Marshall’s protégé, Motley, who wrote the original complaint, as legal historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin writes in Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality. Despite the personal and professional barriers she encountered as a Black woman, Motley effected significant change by challenging racist Jim Crow legislation throughout the segregated American South. 

Speaking with NPR’s Code Switch earlier this month, Brown-Nagin noted that Motley paid Marshall’s mentorship forward by advising other young outstanding lawyers from historically marginalized backgrounds. These mentees include current associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who became the first Latina woman on the court under President Barack Obama in 2009.

“I think it's a profound part of her legacy,” Brown-Nagin added, “[Motley] was the first in so many respects, but she made sure that she was not the only one.”

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