THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN JUSTICE
The U.S. Supreme Court is crucial to the progress of Black Americans. Our rights to fully participate in democracy and in social and economic life depend on the Court. From Brown v. Board of Educationto Shelby County v. Holder, we have seen the power of the Supreme Court to both advance and undermine civil rights and equal justice under law. Each year, the Court decides critical cases involving voting rights, equal educational opportunity, fair employment and housing, women's rights, access to health care, immigration, consumer rights, environmental justice, and criminal justice. These decisions directly impact our lives and the lives of our families and generations to come.
On February 25, 2022, President Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the 116th Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. She would be the first Black woman justice ever to serve on the Court. Since 1789, 115 justices have served and all but six have been white men. Lyndon Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice, in 1967, and Ronald Reagan appointed the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, in 1981.
Representation of a Black woman on the Supreme Court is long overdue. Judge Jackson's presence and voice on the Court will enrich its perspective and decision-making. A more diverse bench will help the Court better serve the nation's broad, diverse populations who are impacted by its rulings. While the addition of Justice Jackson may not change the ideological balance of this Court, she will bring a powerful and unique voice to the Court that will forever change this institution.
Who is Ketanji Brown Jackson?
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is 51 years old. She was born in Washington D.C. Her name, Ketanji Onyika, which means "Lovely One," was chosen from a list of names sent to her parents from her aunt, then a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. She is a product of public schools. She attended Miami Palmetto High School, where she was elected class president three times and was a super-star on the debate team. She was voted "most likely to succeed" and "most talented." In her yearbook, she noted she wanted to become a judge.
Both of her parents are graduates of HBCUs. Her father, Johnny Brown, attended North Carolina Central University. Her mother, Ellery Brown, was a teacher who eventually became principal of a magnet public high school in Miami. Johnny Brown was first a history teacher who went back to school to earn his law degree when Judge Jackson was young. She has said: "When people ask me how I ended up getting into the legal profession, I often tell the story of how, when I was in preschool, I would sit at the dining room table doing my 'homework' with my father — he had his law books all stacked up, and I had my coloring books all staked up — and when I think back on those times, there really is no question that my love of the law began in that formative period." Johnny Brown became the chief attorney for the Miami-Dade County School Board. Her brother, Ketajh Brown, worked as a police officer in Baltimore for seven years and served in the U.S. Army in Iraq. He is now a lawyer in Chicago.
Judge Jackson is married to a surgeon in Washington, D.C. They met while studying at Harvard. They have two daughters, Talia and Leila. As an 11-year-old, Leila wrote to then-President Obama asking him to appoint her mother to the Supreme Court: "She's determined, honest and never breaks a promise to anyone even if there are other things she'd rather do. She can demonstrate commitment and is loyal and never brags. I think she would make a great Supreme court justice."
Credentials & Qualifications
Judge Jackson has extraordinary legal credentials. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University and a cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School. She clerked for three federal judges: Judge Patti Saris on the District of Massachusetts; Judge Bruce Selya on the First Circuit; and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, whose seat she would now fill. Over the course of her career, she worked for four different prestigious law firms, located in Boston and Washington D.C.
Judge Jackson will be the first public defender ever to serve on the Supreme Court. She would be the first justice since Thurgood Marshall to bring any expertise in criminal defense to the Court. For two years, she served as an assistant public defender in Washington DC, where she handled appeals for people convicted of federal crimes who could not afford counsel. She argued successfully on behalf of a defendant who was denied his right to an impartial jury. She protected a defendant against infringement of his right against self-incrimination. She represented a Guantanamo detainee seeking habeas review of his classification as an "enemy combatant". At her Senate confirmation hearing in 2021, she told the Senate that she was "struck" by how little her clients understood about the legal process and that as a trial judge, she took "extra care" to make sure that defendants knew what was happening to them and why.
Importantly, Judge Jackson worked for six years with the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan agency created by Congress to reduce disparities in sentencing. She served as assistant special counsel and later was appointed by President Obama to serve as commissioner and vice-chair. She strongly supported amending sentencing guidelines to reduce disparities in penalties that harshly impact Black and Brown defendants. In 2011, she participated in a unanimous decision to make retroactive a law passed by Congress, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, to reduce penalties for crack cocaine offenses to more closely track penalties for powder cocaine offenses. As a result, approximately 12,000 federal prisoners were eligible for a reduction in sentence, and 85 percent of those eligible were Black. When the decision was announced, then-Sentencing Commission Vice-Chair Jackson stated: "I believe that the commission has no choice but to make this right. I say justice demands this result."
Currently, Judge Jackson serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, known as the second-highest court in the land given its special jurisdiction. President Biden appointed her last June. Previously, she was a trial judge for eight years for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where she was appointed by President Obama. If confirmed, she would be only one of two sitting justices (with Justice Sonia Sotomayor), to have served as a federal trial judge. She has issued over 600 rulings, including many important decisions like the following:
- Upheld Government Contracting Program for Disadvantaged Business-Owners: Judge Jackson upheld a federal law allowing the Small Business Association to ensure federal contracting opportunities for socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. Congress created the Section 8(a) program in 1978 to extend government contracting opportunities to small business owners discriminated against or excluded because of their experience of racial or ethnic prejudice. In a lawsuit challenging the program as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, Judge Jackson ruled it was constitutional. Rothe Development, Inc. v. U.S. Department of Defense
- Permitted People with Disabilities to Sue for Discrimination in Transportation: Judge Jackson ruled that Uber could be liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failure to provide transportation for people with disabilities. Disability rights advocates had argued that Uber discriminates against users of non-foldable wheelchairs by providing less reliable and more costly service and subjecting them to longer wait times. Equal Rights Center v. Uber Technologies, Inc.
- Ruled Against Trump-era Effort to Restrict Collective Bargaining: Judge Jackson ruled that a federal agency overseeing labor-management relations, which was dominated by Trump appointees, had unlawfully narrowed policy about when management had a "duty to bargain" with unions, calling it "unreasoned and unreasonable." AFL-CIO v. Federal Labor Relations Authority
- Ordered Trump White House Counsel to Appear Before House Judiciary Committee. Judge Jackson ruled that former counsel Donald McGahn must comply with a subpoena in connection with the House's impeachment investigation. The Trump administration had claimed his closest advisers were shielded from having to appear before Congress. She wrote that "Presidents are not kings," and that absolute immunity for his top aides "from the compelled congressional process simply does not exist." Committee on the Judiciary v. McGahn
Importantly, Judge Jackson has already been confirmed by the Senate three times. The first two votes — for Commissioner on the Sentencing Commission and for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia — were voice votes, meaning there was no objection. On June 14, 2021, she was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit by a vote of 53 to 44, with three Republicans voting to confirm her, including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Judge Jackson has incredibly stellar credentials and extraordinary qualifications to serve on the Supreme Court. The Senate should treat Judge Jackson with respect and dignity throughout the confirmation process, including during her confirmation hearing which begins Monday, March 21. Each and every Senator should vote to support this historic nomination.