In January, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced his plans to retire, giving President Joe Biden the opportunity to select a new justice. As the oldest SCOTUS member, Breyer’s retirement will ensure a favorable replacement for liberals and provides President Biden with a history-making moment: making good on his campaign promise to nominate the first Black woman to the country’s highest bench.
Today, Biden announced his pick: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. With her elite educational background, clerkship experience and current placement on the D.C. Circuit, Jackson is a conventional choice in some ways. But, as the first Black woman on the highest bench, she will also bring the perspective of a public defender, another first for the Supreme Court. In today’s piece, we’re giving you the rundown on Jackson’s background and her track record on democracy.
Quick Facts: Meet Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson
Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Florida. She attended Harvard University for both her undergraduate and law degree and served as an editor of Harvard Law Review. Jackson held three federal clerkships, including for Justice Breyer himself. Taking the seat of her former boss would be a full circle moment for Jackson (this isn’t the first time this has happened in the Court’s history — both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh replaced the justice they had previously clerked for).
After several years of private practice (and two years with the U.S. Sentencing Commission), Jackson became an assistant federal public defender in 2005. In the past decade, Jackson has served in several influential roles:
- In 2010, she returned to the Sentencing Commission, nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as vice chair.
- In 2013, President Obama nominated Jackson to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She served in this position until 2021. For more on how the federal judiciary is structured, read “The U.S. Court System Explained.”
- In 2021, Biden nominated Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, filling the vacancy left by Judge Merrick Garland when he stepped down to become U.S. Attorney General.
It’s not surprising for a judge to launch from the D.C. Circuit to the Supreme Court — it’s widely considered the second most powerful court in the nation and eight current and past justices served on it.
At age 51, Jackson would be the second youngest on the Court, second only to Justice Amy Coney Barrett at 50.
Jackson is a history-making pick. But she’s also illustrative of how Biden has approached the judiciary.
If confirmed, Jackson will be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court and only the eighth justice who is not a white man in the Court’s 233 year history. Two Black men, Justices Clarence Thomas and Thurgood Marshall, and only one woman of color, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is Latina, have served on the Court. But beyond the frames of race and gender, Jackson’s legal background is also unique. There has never been a public defender on the Court, nor a single criminal defense lawyer for several decades.
Over the first two years of the Biden administration, one of his most important but often understated accomplishments has been reshaping the federal judiciary. In an attempt to fill a record number of vacancies in lower federal courts, Biden is nominating more women and people of color than ever before, along with individuals with diverse professional backgrounds.
The Biden transition team highlighted this point in a December 2020 letter seeking recommendations from senators: “We are particularly focused on nominating individuals whose legal experiences have been historically underrepresented on the federal bench, including those who are public defenders, civil rights and legal aid attorneys, and those who represent Americans in every walk of life.”
The nominee on democracy: “Presidents are not kings.”
The fight for voting rights and democracy is playing out in courtrooms across the country, and on occasion, landmark cases wind up before the Supreme Court. In recent years, the Court has notably chipped away at the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee (2021).
As recently as Feb. 7, the Court indicated its intentions to further erode the VRA when it paused a lower court ruling that required Alabama to draw a new congressional map with a second majority-Black district.
While Jackson has not been involved in a significant voting rights or redistricting case, she has touched upon the themes of democracy in several rulings. As a district judge, one of Jackson’s high profile cases was Committee on the Judiciary v. McGahn (2019) where she wrote an 118 page opinion in a case involving the congressional subpoena of President Donald Trump’s former White House Counsel Donald McGahn. Jackson held that Congress had the power to compel McGahn to comply with his subpoena and rejected the argument made by Trump’s Department of Justice that the federal courts lack the authority to adjudicate disputes between the executive and legislative branches. In a ruling (later reversed) that showed her regard for the separation of powers and limits on executive action, Jackson wrote: “Stated simply, the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings.”
Jackson has been on the D.C. Circuit for less than one year. However, during that time, she joined an opinion that rejected Trump’s claim of executive privilege after he asked the court to block the disclosure of documents from the National Archives requested from the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Now, Jackson faces the confirmation process in the U.S. Senate. When confirmed to the D.C. Circuit last year, Jackson gained the support of three Senate Republicans — Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Jackson’s nomination won’t alter the 6-3 conservative skew of the Court, but is a history-making moment in several ways. With Breyer’s retirement, the next generation of Supreme Court justices will come face to face to even more defining moments for our democracy.