Who is Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s Supreme Court pick?

As Jackson’s Senate confirmation hearings get under way, Al Jazeera examines her path to the United States’ top court.

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson
If confirmed, Ketanji Brown Jackson would be the first Black woman and first public defender to serve on the US Supreme Court [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

When US President Joe Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to the United States’ highest court, he praised her “exceptional credentials, unimpeachable character, and an unwavering dedication to the rule of law”.

Biden’s pick was also historic, as Jackson would be the first Black woman to ever serve on the US Supreme Court – and she has received support from a wide array of stakeholders, from Democratic lawmakers to civil rights groups, law enforcement agencies and state attorneys general.

“It’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation with a nominee of extraordinary qualifications,” Biden said during a ceremony at the White House late last month.

As Jackson’s confirmation hearings are set to begin on Monday, Al Jazeera examines her path to the Supreme Court.

Early years, education

Jackson was born in Washington, DC in 1970 and grew up in Miami, Florida. Her father worked as a teacher and then a school board attorney, and her mother was a school principal. Jackson has said that she first started thinking about a career in law as a child when her father went back to law school.

“We lived on the campus of the University of Miami, and my dad would sit there with all of his big, thick legal books, and I would bring my colouring books and I would sit next to him and watch him study, and pretend as though I was doing work, as well,” she said in a video shared by Biden on Twitter.

In high school, she participated in speech and debate competitions, including some held at Harvard University.

“Year after year, she was elected by our peers to be class president in our large, diverse public high school,” a former classmate recently said in a CNN opinion piece. “I want to go into law and eventually have a judicial appointment,” Jackson said in her 1988 yearbook, CNN reported.

In a fact sheet on Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination, the White House said that the judge’s high school guidance counsellor told her not to set her “sights too high” when she said she wanted to attend Harvard University. She eventually went on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard College, before graduating cum laude in 1996 from Harvard Law School, where she also served as a supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden, right, arrives with Vice President Kamala Harris and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to announce Jackson as his Supreme Court nominee [File: Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo]

Legal career

After graduating from law school, Jackson served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, whose seat she will be taking if confirmed. “Justice Breyer was an incredible boss and mentor,” she said in the video shared by Biden on social media.

“As a clerk, you help the judge or the justice draft their opinions and make sure their thoughts are put down carefully in the law … It was just an enormous opportunity to get to see how the justice system works at the highest level,” she said.

Among other posts, Jackson worked in private practice and in the appeals division of the Office of the Federal Public Defender in the District of Columbia. She told a Senate committee hearing last year (PDF) that her work as a public defender was “an opportunity to help people in need, and to promote core constitutional values”.

She also served as assistant special counsel at the US Sentencing Commission, where she also later served as vice chair.

During her time on the commission, “Judge Jackson proposed and reviewed amendments to federal sentencing policies” and “demonstrated a consistent concern about the fundamental fairness of the proposed amendments and the evenhanded treatment of individuals convicted of a crime”, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said in a report (PDF) on her legal record.

Former US President Barack Obama in 2012 nominated Jackson to the US District Court for the District of Columbia, and she was confirmed the next year. In 2021, she was confirmed to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit after being nominated by Biden.

Jackson wrote nearly 600 opinions in her years as a judge for the US District Court and DC Circuit Appeals Court, according to the Alliance for Justice, an advocacy group that published a fact sheet last year on her track record. Those opinions were reversed or vacated only 14 times, the group said.

If confirmed to the Supreme Court, Jackson would be the first public defender ever to serve as justice on that bench, the White House has said.

Jackson has also said she hopes to be an inspiration to others who may want to go into the legal profession. “I have spent my life admiring lawyers and judges from all backgrounds, but especially those who are African Americans like me, who have worked very hard to get to where they are,” she said in the video shared online.

“I have been inspired by Judge Constance Baker Motley, who was the first Black woman ever to be appointed to the federal bench. She was a civil rights lawyer before she became a judge. It meant a lot to me in my career to have her as an inspiration and I would hope to be an inspiration to other young people, lawyers … who may want to go into the judicial branch.”

Source: Al Jazeera