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Biden Supreme Court pick Jackson brings criminal justice experience to the bench

Appellate judge clerked for Breyer, whose seat she would fill

Circuit Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be President Joe Biden's nominee to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.
Circuit Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be President Joe Biden's nominee to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson worked as a public defender and on a commission to make criminal sentences more fair before she was appointed to federal courts in Washington. Now, she is President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.

The White House made the selection official in a news release that highlighted how the Senate previously has confirmed Jackson to three roles “with votes from Republicans as well as Democrats.”

“Judge Jackson is an exceptionally qualified nominee as well as an historic nominee, and the Senate should move forward with a fair and timely hearing and confirmation,” the White House announcement said. Biden and Jackson are due to appear together Friday afternoon.

The White House and Senate Democrats will tout not only the racial diversity Jackson would add to the nation’s highest court, but that perspective she can bring from her deep experience in criminal justice issues that they say is missing far too often on the bench.

“Judge Jackson has grappled with legal, intellectual, and moral challenges that come with sentencing policy and decisions,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said on the Senate floor ahead of a confirmation vote last year.

Biden and Democrats also will point to her nearly decade of experience on the bench and the more than 600 opinions she has written. President Barack Obama appointed her to the federal district court in Washington in 2013, and the Senate confirmed her on a voice vote.

In June, the Senate voted 53-44 to confirm Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which attracts controversy because it handles cases of national sweep on environmental, labor, immigration and other policy issues.

Democrats have been looking for bipartisan support for Biden’s pick for the Supreme Court. Three Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — voted with Democrats on Jackson’s D.C. Circuit confirmation.

And Jackson’s recent path through the Senate confirmation process for the D.C. Circuit will also help the Democratic caucus act quickly. As the recent hospitalization of Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico demonstrated, being able to move quickly takes on extra importance when the Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break any tie votes.

A background as a public defender

Jackson, 51, was born in Washington and raised in Miami. Her parents were public school teachers at the time of her birth. She has two daughters. Democrats have pointed out that she was a champion high school debater and attended Harvard-Radcliffe College and Harvard Law School.

She did three federal clerkships, including one for Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who announced his intention to step down at the end of the term at the end of June “assuming that my successor has been nominated and confirmed.”

Jackson worked as an associate at two law firms from 2000 to 2003, was a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission for four years, and practiced law in Washington from 2007 to 2013, including two years as a federal public defender.

Biden picked Jackson to fill the D.C. Circuit vacancy created when he made Merrick B. Garland his attorney general. She has been involved in one high-profile political case since then, when she joined a panel decision that shot down Donald Trump’s effort to delay some White House records from going to the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The Supreme Court later declined Trump’s request to review that panel decision.

Jackson told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year that her experience in criminal law was beneficial in the courtroom, because she learned to take “extra care” to communicate with defendants.

As an appellate public defender, she had found that most of her clients didn’t really understand what had happened to them in their conviction. And so now she makes sure to explain to defendants why they need to face consequences for their decision to engage in criminal behavior.

“And I think that’s really important for our entire justice system because it’s only if people understand what they’ve done, why it’s wrong, and what will happen to them if they do it again, that they can really start to rehabilitate,” Jackson said.

Jackson said those experiences, and not race, play a role in the kind of judge she has been. She said she comes to decisions by looking “only at the arguments that the parties have made, at the facts in the record of the case, and at the law as I understand it,” and that “race would be the kind of thing that would be inappropriate to inject in my evaluation of a case.”

She told the senators that she does not inject her personal views into decisions, “and it doesn’t make a difference whether or not the argument is coming from a death row inmate or the president of the United States.”

Jackson said she sometimes goes to the National Archives, which has milestone documents in the country’s founding, such as the Constitution and Bill of Rights, to reflect to reflect on how she’s “had an opportunity that my grandparents would not have been able to even fathom.”

“And it is the beauty and the majesty of this country that someone who comes from a background like mine could find herself in this position,” Jackson said.

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