Trailblazing US jurist Ketanji Brown Jackson has seen real impact of the law

Ketanji Brown Jackson does not have the background typical of US Supreme Court judges, and not just because she will be first Black woman ever to serve at the pinnacle of the legal profession.

While many judges have made their mark as prosecutors, Jackson — who was confirmed by the Senate Thursday — spent two years as a federal public defender representing clients who could not afford their own lawyer.

The 51-year-old — who is already seeing her name abbreviated to her initials in the tradition of beloved late justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg — has served on the US Sentencing Commission, an independent agency created by Congress in 1984 to address sentencing disparities.

And she has personal experience with the harsh sentences meted out for drug crimes in the United States — an uncle was sentenced to life in prison in 1989 for cocaine possession.

“For Ketanji, the law isn’t just an abstract set of concepts… Her family’s experience does inform her awareness of the real impact the law has on people’s lives,” a friend and former colleague from the public defender’s office told The Washington Post.

Jackson noted her non-traditional background in her 2021 Senate confirmation hearing for a seat on the US Circuit Court of Appeals.

“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,” she said at the time.

Jackson spent more than 20 hours being grilled by senators as part of her confirmation process on her sentencing record, past statements and political views.

“I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building — equal justice under law — are a reality and not just an ideal,” the trailblazing jurist said.

‘Lovely one’
Her Supreme Court nomination hearings last month teased out Jackson’s approach to a wide array of legal matters, but also shone a light on the kind of person friends and family see when she is not in her judge’s robes.

They also allowed Jackson to flesh out her perspective on a crucial milestone for Black American girls who rarely see powerful role models that look like them.

“Since I was nominated to this position, I have received so many notes and letters and photos from little girls around the country who tell me that they are so excited for this opportunity,” Jackson told senators.

Raised with an African given name that means “lovely one,” Ketanji Onyika Brown moved at a young age from the nation’s capital to the Miami suburbs.

Her interest in the law was inspired in part by her father, who earned his law degree after working as a teacher and went on to be the chief attorney for the Miami-Dade school system in Florida.

Jackson told the Senate Judiciary Committee she had learned the value of diligence and tenacity from her family, including uneducated grandparents who were the “hardest working people I’ve ever known.”

“I stand on the shoulders of people from that generation,” she said.

On her own role as a mother of two grown-up children and one of the country’s most high profile judges, she was disarmingly candid.

“Juggling motherhood and job responsibilities, I didn’t always get the balance right,” she said in an acknowledgement that will have struck a chord with working mothers nationwide.

Political awakening

Jackson’s political awakening began in the late 1980s, when a fellow freshman at Harvard hung a Confederate flag from his window and she joined protests of the “huge affront.”

She pursued her dream of becoming a lawyer after graduating in 1996, the year she married medic Patrick Jackson.

Jackson worked for a series of elite law firms in Boston and Washington and as a law clerk for Justice Stephen Breyer, the man she is replacing on the Supreme Court, in 1999 and 2000.

Jackson became an assistant special counsel with the US Sentencing Commission in 2003 and worked for the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Washington from 2005 to 2007.

While she was at the public defender’s office, her father’s incarcerated older brother, Thomas Brown Jr, reached out to her asking for help getting him out of prison, according to the Post.

She passed on his appeal to a top private law firm and Brown eventually had his sentence commuted, in November 2016 by Barack Obama — one of hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders who had their sentences reduced during his presidency.

Her most notable ruling came in 2019 when she said a former White House counsel to president Donald Trump had to obey a congressional subpoena.

“Presidents are not kings,” Jackson wrote.

In March 2021, she was nominated by Biden to serve as a US Circuit Judge for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a position seen as a springboard to the Supreme Court.

“I’m looking at the arguments, the facts and the law. I’m methodically and intentionally setting aside personal views, any other inappropriate considerations.”