WASHINGTON (AP) — When Ketanji Brown Jackson’s youngest daughter was 11, she penned a letter to the president suggesting a Supreme Court vacancy to her federal judge mother.
“Dear Mr. President,” wrote Leila Jackson. “She is determined, honest and never breaks a promise to anyone, even if there are other things she would rather do. She can be committed, is loyal and never brags. . I think she would make a great Supreme Court justice.”
Jackson was not nominated for the vacancy her daughter was writing about, the one created by the 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia. And Republican lawmakers blocked President Barack Obama’s ultimate nominee, Merrick Garland, who is now President Joe Biden’s attorney general.
But Jackson might get another chance.
She is seen as one of the best prospects to replace retired Justice Stephen Breyer as Biden seeks to fulfill a campaign pledge to appoint the first black woman to the court.
Jackson spoke about her daughter’s letter in a 2017 speech. She said the letter was sent after her daughter learned there was an opening in high court and thought her mother should apply.
“Being on the Supreme Court isn’t really the kind of job you apply for,” she and her husband explained to their daughter.
Still, a little bragging doesn’t hurt.
Jackson has a similar background to court judges and had come to Obama’s attention as a possible candidate in 2016. She went to college and Harvard Law School. She also spent a year early in her career serving as a legal assistant at Breyer.
Her background as a public defender might set her apart, particularly because Biden has enjoyed the criminal defense and civil rights work of others he has appointed to federal judgeships.
Jackson is on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a position Biden elevated her to last year from her previous job as a federal trial judge. . Three current justices – Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas and John Roberts, the Chief Justice – have previously served on the same appellate court.
Jackson was confirmed in the appeals court by a vote of 53 to 44, winning the support of three Republicans: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. That could be important for Biden, who has asked for GOP support as he chooses a nominee. Another GOP connection: Jackson is related by marriage to former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.
Jackson was born in Washington, DC, but grew up in Miami. She said her parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, chose her name to express their pride in her family’s African ancestry. They asked an aunt who was in the Peace Corps in Africa at the time to send a list of African girl names and they chose Ketanji Onyika, which they were told meant “beautiful”.
She traces her interest in law to when she was in kindergarten and her father was in law school and they sat together at the dining room table, her with coloring books and him with law books. Her father became a county school board attorney and her mother was a high school principal. She has a brother nine years her junior who served in the army, notably in Iraq, and who is now a lawyer.
In high school, she was president of her public high school class and champion debater. Richard B. Rosenthal, a lawyer who has known her since college, said there was no doubt she would rise to the top of whatever field she chose, describing her as “destined for greatness”. Her older brother, Stephen F. Rosenthal, a classmate and friend from Miami who also went to college and law school with her, called her a “natural leader” and someone with ” penetrating intelligence”.
At Harvard, she studied government, but was also involved in theater and musical theater and was part of an improv group called On Thin Ice. At one point, actor Matt Damon was assigned to her as an acting class partner, she said, acknowledging he probably wouldn’t remember her. He doesn’t, Damon confirmed through a rep, but added, “That’s so cool!”
Also at Harvard, she met her husband, Patrick Jackson. The couple have two daughters, writer Leila, who is in high school, and her older sister, Talia, who is in college.
Patrick Jackson, a surgeon, has a Twitter account that sticks almost exclusively to medicine. But on June 12, in a tweet that has apparently since been deleted, he posted to note an important legal date. It was the anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia of the Supreme Court which struck down interracial marriage bans. “Have a nice day love! I am especially grateful to walk through life with a brilliant, compassionate partner who still takes my breath away, made possible by sacrifices like Richard and Mildred Loving,” Jackson wrote, adding a photo of himself and of his wife.
The two married in 1996. From 1999 to 2000, Jackson served as Breyer’s law clerk on the Supreme Court.
Deborah Pearlstein, legal assistant to Judge John Paul Stevens in the same year Jackson worked for Breyer, recalled Jackson as funny, insightful and “incredibly good at her job”.
“I don’t know anyone at the time who didn’t get along with Ketanji,” Pearlstein said.
In his career since, Jackson has worked for major law firms but has also served as a public defender. After being nominated to serve on the US Sentencing Commission, the agency that crafts federal sentencing policy, she learned to knit to cope with the stress of the nomination and confirmation process, she said. As commissioner, she participated in a unanimous vote to allow thousands of people already incarcerated in federal prison for crack-related crimes to have their sentences reduced as a result of a new law.
Jail is not a distant concept for Jackson. His uncle was serving a life sentence for a drug-related crime until he was commuted by Obama, according to a detailed Washington Post account.
Jackson’s work on the Sentencing Commission paved the way for her to become a federal judge, where one of the things she displayed in her office was a copy of a famous handwritten petition to the Supreme Court of a Florida prisoner, Clarence Gideon. The Supreme Court took up his case and handed down a landmark decision guaranteeing a lawyer to defendants who are too poor to afford one.
In one of her most high-profile decisions, she ordered former White House attorney Don McGahn to appear before Congress. It was a setback for former President Donald Trump’s efforts to prevent his top aides from testifying. The case was appealed and an agreement was eventually reached for McGahn’s testimony.
Another high-profile case overseen by Jackson involved the online “pizzagate” conspiracy theory, unfounded internet rumors about prominent Democrats harboring child sex slaves at a Washington pizzeria. A North Carolina man showed up at the restaurant with an AR-15 assault rifle and a revolver. Jackson called it “pure luck”, no one was hurt and sentenced him to four years in prison.
Jackson has a considerably shorter record as an appeals court judge.
His first opinion, written for a unanimous panel of three judges in favor of the unions, was released in recent days. In previous votes, she joined her colleagues in refusing to block the Biden administration from enforcing a freeze on deportations put in place during the coronavirus pandemic and spoke out against a Trump effort to protect residents. House committee papers investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill. Those decisions were appealed to the Supreme Court and the judges allowed the evictions to resume, but also allowed the documents to be released.
As for the current Supreme Court opening, in addition to her daughter’s endorsement, Jackson also had the endorsement of the man she would replace. When officials called Breyer during her initial appointment as a federal judge, Breyer reportedly picked up the phone and started the conversation with two words: “Hire her.”