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What to know about Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s pick for the Supreme Court

President Biden nominated D.C. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Feb. 25. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)
8 min

From the moment President Biden promised to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has been the likeliest pick. And that is who he he nominated Friday to fill retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s seat. “She cares about making sure that democracy works for the American people,” Biden said Friday as he nominated her, also saying “For too long the government and the courts have not looked like America.”

Here’s what you need to know about her.

She’s got a background made for a Supreme Court nominee: Jackson grew up in Miami, her mom a public teacher and her father a lawyer for the school board. One of her uncles was the city’s police chief.

She was a high school debate champion, and she graduated from Harvard Law, where she was an editor on the Harvard Law Review.

She has been a federal judge for nine years, and last year Biden appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, widely seen as a waiting bench for likely Supreme Court candidates.

Before that, she was a public defender and clerk for Breyer.

Jackson is married, with two daughters. She’s 51 and would be one of the younger justices. (Breyer, the oldest, is 83. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the youngest, is 50.)

She also shared Friday that she shares a birthday with the first Black woman ever appointed to the federal judiciary, Constance Baker Motley.

She has won the support of some Republicans in the past: She’s been confirmed by the Senate three times for various jobs. Last year, three Senate Republicans voted to confirm her to the seat she has now on the D.C. circuit court — a not-insignificant number these days. They were Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

“I think she’s qualified for the job. She has a different philosophy than I do,” Graham told reporters at the time.

Ketanji Brown Jackson would make history as first federal public defender on Supreme Court

When she was being confirmed for her first federal judgeship in 2012, then-Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who would go on to be House speaker, introduced her. The two are related by marriage (Ryan’s sister-in-law is married to the twin brother of Jackson’s husband). Ryan said “although our politics may differ, my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, for her integrity, it is unequivocal.” He repeated that language, word for word, Friday.

But it’s not clear whether any Senate Republicans would support her now. Another potential nominee, J. Michelle Childs, a judge in South Carolina, had at least one GOP senator, Graham, talking favorably about her.

So far, initial Republican reaction to Jackson has been muted. Several GOP senators — such as Susan Collins of Maine or Mitt Romney of Utah — issued statements describing Jackson as “experienced” and praised her education and career. But Republican opposition to her was taking shape. Graham, who voted for Jackson in her confirmation hearing last year, described her as a pick from “the radical left.” So did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) in a statement that also called into question some of her recent judicial decisions.

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Democrats seemed totally united behind her, elated even. “With her exceptional qualifications, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be a Justice who will uphold the Constitution and protect the rights of all Americans, including the voiceless and vulnerable,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) tweeted.

If all 50 Senate Democrats support her, Biden doesn’t need any Republican votes to get her nomination confirmed by the Senate. But, given how Biden had prioritized bipartisanship, he may like for his nominee to get some Republican votes.

Liberals really like her: A dozen liberal groups sent a letter to Biden championing Jackson — without mentioning her by name, NBC News reported. They like her background working with some of the most disadvantaged people in the justice system.

Same with civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who has represented the families of prominent victims of police shootings: He wrote that Jackson would represent the Black community well on the court.

By contrast, some labor groups expressed concerns about Childs, who as a lawyer defended some people accused of sexual harassment in the workplace.

She would be the first public defender on the modern court: Jackson wouldn’t just be making history as the first Black woman to sit on the high court. Among the many ways that the Supreme Court lacks diversity is in the judicial careers of its members: No current justice has represented criminal defendants, despite the court’s regularly hearing cases in which convicted criminals’ lives are in their hands.

And no current justice has served as a public defender, where the accused can’t afford to pay for their own attorney. (Normally, presidents pick people who have experience on the opposite side of the courtroom, such as corporate lawyers or prosecuting those convicted of crimes.)

Jackson also served on a sentencing commission — which Biden said he helped design — that ended up lowering federal drug sentences in the Obama era.

She and her allies credit her work as a public defender as helping her develop empathy: “There is a direct line from my defender service to what I do on the bench, and I think it’s beneficial,” she said at her confirmation hearing to sit on the D.C. circuit court.

Americans divided over whether first Black female justice will make a difference, Post-ABC poll finds

But that role has also involved getting people off the hook at times. As The Post’s Marimow and Aaron Davis report, she kept an attorney convicted of tax fraud out of jail. Jackson successfully argued against a federal charge for a man convicted of having an illegal gun in his home. And she worked quite a bit defending prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, something she acknowledged she did while her brother was serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq.

In her confirmation hearing last year to sit on the D.C. circuit court, Republicans asked her about this. “Have you ever represented a terrorist at Guantánamo Bay?” Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) asked. She emphasized that, as an appointed federal public defender, she was mainly writing briefs (rather than arguing in a courtroom), and that the briefs she wrote represented the views of her clients, not herself.

One of her big decisions was on separation of powers in the Trump era: In 2019, Congress was battling with Trump White House Counsel Donald McGahn about whether he should testify to the House Judiciary Committee. The case came before Jackson, who soundly rejected McGahn’s arguments that he had immunity from testifying. In a lengthy opinion, she wrote this well-known line: “The primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings.”

Her judicial rulings show a pattern of deciding against local and federal governments. She once blocked nationwide the Trump administration’s ability to more quickly deport migrants. Early on in her career as a lawyer, she wrote a brief supporting a Massachusetts law supporting a buffer zone between pedestrians and entrances to abortion clinics, SCOTUSblog notes. But in one major case, she ruled for the Trump administration by allowing his border wall to continue to be built in New Mexico, despite the protests of environmental groups.

4 issues that could come up in Jackson's confirmation fight

She played a key role in getting her uncle out of prison: When Jackson was a public defender in D.C., she received a letter from an uncle asking for her help, The Post’s Marimow and Davis report. He had been sentenced to life in prison under a federal “three strikes” law. Jackson referred him to a high-profile law firm, which took his case pro bono. His sentence was eventually commuted by President Barack Obama, which Jackson said she took no role in, Marimow and Davis report.

Jackson briefly mentioned this Friday as Biden nominated her: “You may have read that I have one uncle who got caught up in the drug trade and received a life sentence, that is true,” Jackson said. “But law enforcement also runs in my family.” (Her uncle was chief of police for the city of Miami.)

She says she doesn’t let race influence her decisions: When asked about race in her confirmation last year, here’s what she said: “I’m doing a certain thing when I get my cases. I’m looking at the arguments, the facts and the law. I’m methodically and intentionally setting aside personal views, any other inappropriate considerations, and I would think that race would be the kind of thing that would be inappropriate to inject into my evaluation of a case.”

But Jackson has also acknowledged that being a Black woman affects how she sees the world, saying: “I’ve experienced life in perhaps a different way than some of my colleagues because of who I am, and that might be valuable — I hope it would be valuable — if I was confirmed to the court.”

Ketanji Brown Jackson

The latest: Ketanji Brown Jackson will be sworn in as the Supreme Court’s first Black female justice at noon Eastern time on June 30, just minutes after her mentor Justice Stephen G. Breyer makes his retirement official. It is the first time the Supreme Court will have four female justices among its nine members.

The votes: The Senate voted 53-to-47 to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, with three Republican senators joining every Democratic and independent senator. Here’s how each senator voted on Jackson’s nomination.

The nominee: The president named Ketanji Brown Jackson, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, as his first Supreme Court nominee. She is set be the first Black woman justice in the court’s history.

What it means: The Democrats will succeed in their efforts to replace the oldest of three liberal justices on and further diversify the Supreme Court ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.