On a recent morning, Ketanji Brown Jackson spent an hour doing one of her favorite things: talking about the law with young people.
She was challenging and playful as she asked students questions and answered theirs. One wanted to know whether a Supreme Court justice should be “in touch” with public? “The rule of law is about people’s faith in the institution,” Jackson said. “You sometimes hear a lot of talk about the importance of public perception — having faith in the judiciary. I think one of the ways that judges can help promote that is to not be isolated in an ivory tower but actually be in communication with the people whom the law governs.”
They debated the Constitution, precedents, age limits for federal judges (“I’ve seen people who age very gracefully,” said Jackson, 51, to laughter), career choices and networking: “It literally takes a village to make a judge.” And then, of course, a line for selfies.
After meeting with the students, Jackson sat down with The Washington Post to discuss role models, the pressure of being the first Black female justice and tearing up during the confirmation hearing. (The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
Q: You love mentoring?
A: People ask me, “How did you get to this point? What was important for you?” And it really was the high school debate coach who took an interest in me and encouraged me, and the many judges that I had the opportunity the clerk for. And so I know how important it is — not just to have the books and materials and be able to read and write in the abstract or in isolation, but to have someone who takes an interest in you. I’d like to be that kind of a role model for young people.
Q: I want to talk about some of your personal role models and what specifically you learned. So we’ll start with your father, who went to law school when you were 4.
A: I literally remember sitting at the kitchen table with his big law treatises and case books. Studying, hard work, discipline, being able to set aside what’s going on and actually doing homework. We lived at the University of Miami. And so just being immersed in a college campus environment, when I was that young and knowing that my dad was a student, I think was something that really helped to motivate me to understand the importance of education. My mother was a teacher and became a principal, so my parents, both of them, were always very focused on education. I think that made it something that was not only something to which I aspired but also attainable for me.
Q: What did he tell you about why he wanted to be a lawyer? What did you learn about law at his knee?
A: My dad and my mother grew up under segregation in Florida. There’s something about being subject to a legal system that you consider to be unfair that I think gave him the motivation to want to understand it and potentially work to change it. To be able to make the kinds of changes that I think he was interested in, in sort of a global sense, he felt he needed to study the law — and I learned law as an instrument of change.
Q: Do you see it the same way?
A: Oh, absolutely.
Q: I’m going to get to retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer, but you had two other judges as mentors.
A: I clerked for a district court judge, Patti Saris in Massachusetts. She’s has become a lifelong friend and mentor of mine in the real world — she had, I think, four children, and her youngest child was young when I was clerking for her. So the work/life balance, being a working mom. Hearing cases, ruling on things, and then coming back into chambers and taking a call from her kid who was a kindergartner, talking to the teacher.
Q: There was a 2017 speech in which you addressed the idea of trying to be a mother and a judge. If I remember correctly, it was along the lines of you can’t have it all at the same time.
A: I think you can, but I think you have to be comfortable with perhaps not being perfect at everything all the time. There are things that you have to kind of let go — “This is good enough” — because it’s very hard to do everything at once at such a high level.
Q: Your second clerkship?
A: My second clerkship was with Bruce Selya, who is on the First Circuit, and it was a court of appeals clerkship. I learned writing skills in a different way with him, the attention to detail, the way in which he would work with the law clerks in crafting opinions was really something that I had not seen up until that point.
Q: And Justice Breyer?
A: It’s hard to even describe the degree of influence in terms of just his character. He is the ultimate consensus builder, the one who was always trying to forge consensus, build bridges, talk to the justices who disagreed with him about issues. My memories of him are of him constantly coming out of his internal office saying, “I’ve got to go talk to Sandra, I’ve got to go talk to Tony” — Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy — because he was always trying to come up with something that we could all agree on.
He’s just extraordinary in his thought processes about the way the law works. So just having the chance to sit and hear him discuss it, or to look at drafts that he had written of opinions and the way in which he analyzed things — it’s the kind of experience that can’t really be replicated.
Q: Last role model: Constance Baker Motley, with whom you share a birthday. You’ve cited her a number of times as being an important influence.
A: She was the first Black female federal judge. She was a part of the civil rights movement and was one of a handful, if not even less, of women who worked with Thurgood Marshall and other men.
It meant that a woman of color, a Black woman, could become a judge — I didn’t know any other Black female judges coming up. I read about her life and the contributions that she made — she did a lot of pro bono work in representing people who were trying to secure rights in our society. And then she became a judge, and she was a very respected jurist in the Second Circuit. All of those things made it possible for me to see myself as following in a similar path.
Q: Talk about the pressure of being a role model, the pressure of being the first Black female justice.
A: Well, it’s a work in progress. I’m so honored to have so many people who have encouraged me, who have supported me and who view this as a really important step for our country and for our society. It’s not about me personally, in a sense. I’m embodying this progress that many people feel we’re making by having me appointed to this seat. And so it’s pretty daunting in a lot of ways.
I feel prepared because I’ve been one of a handful of African Americans doing what I do at this level for a while. It’s not unfamiliar to me to be a “first” or an “only” or whatever small group of people who are performing in legal circles like this — obviously nothing like as momentous as this.
Q: What does being a first mean in practical terms?
A: It means you feel the weight of wanting to succeed, not just for you in your own independent status, but because so many people are watching and view this as a door opening for others. I know in the past I’ve felt, “Gosh, I’ve really got to do well here so that other people will have this opportunity down the line.” That I might be the first, but I don’t want to be the last, and it’s on my shoulders to make sure that I leave a good impression so that others can follow.
Q: It seems like it also could lead to a lot of unrealistic expectations. On the night that President Barack Obama was elected, people were so excited. And then later on, people were disappointed because he couldn’t fix everything overnight. So there’s tremendous amount of pressure to not just be good but to be the best ever, to work harder than everybody else.
A: I think that there is some of that, but obviously law and judging is different than politics. I don’t see myself as coming with deliverables, like I was appointed to reach a certain outcome or a result or anything like that. That’s not the way law works. But I do feel it’s important for me to continue doing what I do as a judge: Writing opinions that are clear, that people understand, that are consistent with the law and legal principles.
Q: About the confirmation process: The only time you got really emotional was when Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) talked about the fact that you had earned this.
A: It was his entire speech and the point at which it came in the context of the hearing. It had been 18 hours of questioning. I was exhausted and also, in a sense, relieved — it felt like someone understood how difficult it had been and how much this particular position meant to a lot of people. That sort of aspect of it hadn’t really come out very much in the hearing, and so it was a breath of fresh air, a relief in the moment that I think just led to emotion.
Q: A lot of confirmation hearings have a kind of Kabuki quality to them. What surprised you the most?
A: I don’t think I was really that surprised by anything. I had studied very hard. I had watched prior hearings. I knew that I’d get some tough questions from some senators. It was just a test of endurance.
Q: You have repeated in almost every talk that you’ve given about your love for country, your reverence for the Constitution. But the Supreme Court is under attack right now, and you’re coming to the court at a time of almost unprecedented controversy, heightened emotions and perceptions of politicization. How does that make you approach this seat that you’re about to take?
A: I’m going to approach it in the same way I have approached all of my other judicial appointments: understanding what my role is, understanding the way our system was designed and is supposed to work. I’m an optimistic person by nature. … I will approach this by bringing that and my experience as a judge, my experience as a person in the world and my interest in making it all work.
Q: You talked to the students about the court “role modeling.” What does that mean?
A: What that means is that judges are deciding disputes, real disputes between real people, and using the law to do that, applying legal principles and precedents. … It’s important that people understand that judges aren’t making things up just from their own personal views of how the world should work. That’s the policymakers — the policymakers get to look out in the world and say, “Oh, this is a terrible thing. Let’s write a law to solve this problem.” That’s not what judges do. Judges are trying to articulate what the law requires in the context of a particular case. And there’s something very concrete about that, and there’s something that requires an understanding, in my view, of actual parties and problems of real people.
Q: What was your response when you when you saw the draft leak [of a Supreme Court opinion that would strike down Roe v. Wade]?
A: Everybody who is familiar with the court and the way in which it works was shocked by that. Such a departure from normal order.
Q: Do you think it was a good thing or a bad thing?
A: I can’t answer that.
Q: What do you think about peaceful protests outside of Supreme Court justices’ homes?
A: I don’t have any comment.
Q: Back to your personal side. Guilty pleasure?
A: “Survivor.” I love “Survivor.” It’s the best show ever.
Q: Tell me why.
A: Because it’s like a social experiment. It’s human nature, what do people do when they’re starving and how do they react to one another? It’s like this Hobbesian state of nature: How are we going to deal with this situation? I love it.
Q: Is there anything that you want people to know about you as you embark on this role?
A: That I take my responsibilities very seriously. That I’m a mom and a real person and a wife and doing the best that I can. Judges are human beings. We have a duty that we focus on and that we take seriously. And it’s hard because the nature of our work involves resolving disputes, so someone is always going to be disappointed, someone’s going to lose. But in our society, we’ve agreed that this is the way in which disputes get resolved. We’ve agreed on the process. And I’m so honored to be a part of that.