Who is Ketanji Brown Jackson?

Ms Jackson is the first Black woman on the Supreme Court

Andrew Feinberg
Washington, DC
,Sravasti Dasgupta,Gustaf Kilander
Thursday 07 April 2022 19:29 BST
Watch as Senate votes to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to Supreme Court

Ketanji Brown Jackson has been confirmed by the US Senate as the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

She was confirmed on Thursday 7 April by a vote of 53 to 47 after being nominated by President Joe Biden in late February, ending a month-long search for a replacement for Justice Stephen G Breyer.

All 50 Democrats voted to confirm her as well as Republicans Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Susan Collins of Maine.

Ms Jackson will be sworn in as the next justice when Justice Breyer retires at the end of the Supreme Court term.

Seeking to fulfil his 2020 campaign promise to name a Black woman to serve on the highest court in the nation, Mr Biden interviewed at least three potential nominees, with Ms Jackson, Leondra Kruger and J Michelle Childs considered to be the top candidates.

Ms Jackson, who was sworn in as a circuit court judge on 17 June last year, ultimately secured Mr Biden’s endorsement to replace the court’s longest-serving liberal justice on 25 February.

Ms Jackson is a Florida native and double Harvard graduate (undergraduate and law school) who had been named to the federal bench by then-president Barack Obama in 2013.

Ms Jackson has been under consideration for a Supreme Court seat before. When Justice Scalia passed away unexpectedly in early 2016, she was one of five candidates whom then-president Barack Obama interviewed before choosing current US Attorney General Merrick Garland as his pick to succeed Scalia.

Mr Breyer’s retirement while the Senate is in Democratic hands meant Ms Jackson didn’t suffer the fate of Mr Garland, who never received so much as a hearing on his nomination.

After she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee last April, only one Republican, Texas Senator John Cornyn, voted to advance her nomination to the Senate floor. Only three from the GOP side – Sens Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, and Lisa Murkowski – voted to confirm her to the DC Circuit.

Here is what else you need to know about Ms Jackson.

Stephen Breyer (AP)

She is related to a former top House Republican

Since 1999, Ms Jackson has been married to Georgetown University Hospital’s chief of gastrointestinal surgery, Dr Patrick Brown.

Dr Brown has a brother, William, who is married to a woman named Dana Little, whose sister Janna is married to former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R - Wisconsin).

Mr Ryan praised her nomination to the high court, tweeting: “Janna and I are incredibly happy for Ketanji and her entire family,” he tweeted. “Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, and for her integrity, is unequivocal.”

She worked in journalism before attending law school

According to a questionnaire submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ms Jackson spent 1992 and 1993 working as a staff reporter and researcher for TIME magazine.

Ketanji Brown Jackson (AP)

She once clerked for the Supreme Court justice she will replace

From 1999 to 2000, Ms Jackson served as a clerk to Justice Breyer. She also served as a law clerk for First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Bruce Selya from 1997 to 1998, and to Massachusetts District Judge Patti Sarlis from 1996 to 1997.

She will be the only member of the Supreme Court to have served as a public defender

Many of the sitting justices on the high court served in prosecutorial roles before being named to the bench. Justice Sonya Sotomayor spent several years as a New York City assistant district attorney after graduating from Harvard Law School. Justice Samual Alito served for three years as New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor before then-president George HW Bush nominated him to the bench in 1990. And Justice Brett Kavanaugh served as a deputy independent counsel during Kenneth Starr’s years-long investigation of Bill Clinton.

But Ms Jackson will be the first Supreme Court justice in recent memory to have spent time representing indigent criminal defendants, having served as an Assistant Federal Defender in DC from 2005 to 2007.

She has angered Republicans with rulings in high-profile cases involving former president Donald Trump

As a district court judge, Ms Jackson made headlines when she issued a November 2019 ruling ordering former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.

Mr McGahn had argued that as a high-level aide to Mr Trump, he enjoyed “absolute immunity” from being compelled to testify in the committee’s investigation into whether Mr Trump obstructed former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Ms Jackson wrote in her opinion that “absolute immunity from compelled congressional process simply does not exist … because compulsory appearance by dint of a subpoena is a legal construct, not a political one, and per the Constitution, no one is above the law”.

In December, she was one member of a three-judge panel who upheld District Judge Tanya Chutkan’s opinion holding that Mr Trump could not prevent the House select committee investigating the 6 January insurrection from obtaining White House records over which Mr Biden had declined to assert executive privilege.

Republicans condemned her nomination

While Democrats widely praised Mr Biden’s nomination of Ms Jackson, Republicans were quick to offer criticism.

Among the critics was Sen Josh Hawley (R - Missouri), who tore into Ms Jackson’s sentencing record of cases of individuals convicted for possessing child sexual abuse images.

In a lengthy Twitter thread, Mr Hawley listed a number of examples (without providing much, if any, context) of Ms Jackson dispensing lower sentences to individuals convicted of such crimes and cited her writings and past quotations on the subject as troubling.

He concluded: “This is a disturbing record for any judge, but especially one nominated to the highest court in the land. Protecting the most vulnerable shouldn’t be up for debate. Sending child predators to jail shouldn’t be controversial.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans also made the claim that Ms Jackson’s nomination is evidence of the left wing of Mr Biden’s party having a hold over the president.

Some of the most extreme pushback came from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said her nomination would “humiliate” the high court and baselessly questioned her law school admissions test results.

She kept calm in the face of contentious confirmation hearings

Ms Jackson finally faced her congressional critics and supporters at her confirmation hearing, which ran for more than 30 hours across four days, beginning on 21 March.

In marathon sessions before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ms Jackson answered questions about her judicial philosophy, her views on the limitations of federal powers, as well as a wide range of topics unrelated to her legal career, including her support of a DC-area private school and prying questions regarding whether she supported Critical Race Theory, a major conservative boogeyman of the past year.

Republicans on the committee grilled Ms Jackson over her nine-year record as a federal judge, frequently asking hypotheticals and interrupting her answers. She pushed back calmly but aggressively on Republicans who said she gave light sentences to sex offenders, explaining her sentencing process in detail and telling them “nothing could be further from the truth”.

A more unlikely theme came from GOP senators including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina airing their grievances about how Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was treated during his confirmation hearing in 2018.

The Independent’s full analysis of key moments from the hearing can be found here.

On 24 March, she returned to meeting with senators behind closed doors while members of the Judiciary Committee questioned outside experts called by lawmakers to share their views of her confirmation.

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