Ketanji Brown Jackson to be sworn in as Supreme Court Justice as court issues final opinions

President Joe Biden listens as Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks at the White House in April. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Six days after President Biden’s inauguration, White House counsel Dana Remus put in a call to Ketanji Brown Jackson to see if the judge might be interested in a new job: replacing Merrick Garland on a powerful federal appeals court.

The new administration was aimed to prioritize judicial vacancies and planned to push through slates of nominees that would send a message about how the President viewed the courts. Stellar credentials were essential, but Biden also wanted candidates who would bring a fresh professional and demographic diversity to benches across the country dominated by White males. He sought nominees who had worked as public defenders and civil rights attorneys, for instance.

Jackson — then serving on a federal trial court in Washington, DC — fit the bill perfectly. She had a glittering resume that included Harvard degrees and federal clerkships, but her lived experience was rooted in public service.

Looming in the future was the possibility that Justice Stephen Breyer would retire from the Supreme Court, and the federal appeals court in Washington has been a stepping stone for high court nominees.

Biden had pledged to make history by naming a Black woman to the Supreme Court. Such a historic move would highlight a group of female potential nominees who have breached barriers to reach the top of the legal profession. Jackson, who is African American and a former Breyer clerk, would likely be a top contender for that seat. An appeals court post would serve to further season her and boost her profile.

Asked about race during her confirmation hearing last year for that post in the appeals court, Jackson responded carefully. She said that she didn’t think race played a role in the kind of judge that she had been or would be, but she thought her professional background, especially as a trial court judge, would bring value.

“I’ve experienced life in perhaps a different way than some of my colleagues because of who I am, and that might be valuable,” she said. “I hope it would be valuable if I was confirmed to the circuit court.” Last June, the Senate confirmed Jackson to that post by a 53-44 vote.

Now, Jackson, 51, will replace Breyer on the Supreme Court, who retired today at noon ET.

“The bench of Black women attorneys with stellar credentials is extremely deep,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center. But, she noted, Jackson brings more than just a distinguished judicial record.

She has “an understanding of how the law affects people based on both her professional and lived experiences, and a powerful commitment to equal justice,” Wydra said.

She has served as an assistant federal public defender, a commissioner on the US Sentencing Commission, a lawyer in private practice and on two prestigious federal courts.

She is following in the footsteps of the likes of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who took the seats of the justices they had worked for.

Jackson clerked for Breyer during the 1999 term after serving as a clerk in 1997-1998 to Judge Bruce M. Selya, a federal judge in Massachusetts.

At an event in 2017 sponsored by the liberal American Constitution Society, she called working for Breyer an opportunity of a lifetime “to bear witness to the workings of his brilliant legal mind.” She also joked about how the justice often biked to work and would show up in his majestic chamber wearing “full bicycle regalia.”

Jackson often speaks about areas of her expertise in the law, when she addresses audiences, but she also talks about diversity and work-life balance.

In a 2017 speech at the University of Georgia School of Law, she reflected on her journey as a mother and a judge, emphasizing how hard it is for mothers to serve in big law firms — something she said she had done at times to help support her family.

She noted that the hours are long and there is little control over the schedule, which is “constantly in conflict with the needs of your children and your family.” She also highlighted the traps of launching a career in the law and pointed to recent studies that show that lawyers of color — both male and female — constitute only 8% of law firm equity partners nationwide.

Read about her personal record here

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