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Ketanji Brown Jackson, Hot Supreme Court Prospect, Faces Senate Judiciary Committee

Mar 30, 2021
Originally published on April 28, 2021 12:17 am

Updated April 27, 2021 at 1:04 PM ET

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins confirmation hearings Wednesday for President Biden's first slate of judicial nominees — among them, Ketanji Brown Jackson, a hot prospect for nomination to the Supreme Court should a vacancy arise.

If confirmed, she would take the place of Merrick Garland, who resigned from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit when he became U.S. attorney general. Jackson has been a federal trial court judge since 2013 and was on former President Barack Obama's Supreme Court shortlist in 2016.

Back then, she was a long shot, but not this time. Biden has pledged he will name an African American woman to the Supreme Court, and the 50-year-old judge ticks off just about every box that liberals might want in a nominee, and some that conservatives would want, too.

Raised in Miami, she was a national oratory champion in high school, then graduated with honors from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, where she was an editor of the law review.

She clerked for three federal judges, including Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, now 82, who is the most likely member of the high court to step down, though he has given no public indication he plans to do so.

Whereas four members of the current Supreme Court served at one time as prosecutors, Jackson was a public defender, representing indigent defendants. She also practiced in law firms big and small, and served as vice chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission at a time when it sought to reduce the draconian penalties that had been in place for crack cocaine. There she earned a reputation for building consensus, and most of the panel's decisions were unanimous.

For Jackson, sentencing is not an abstract matter. When she was in high school, her uncle was sentenced to life in prison, under a three-strikes law, for a low-level drug crime. He was granted clemency after serving 30 years.

Jackson's parents were both public school teachers until her father became a lawyer, and her mother, eventually, a school principal. The judge met her husband, Dr. Patrick Jackson, at Harvard College. He was, she says, her first, "serious boyfriend," and has remained that ever since.

At first blush, they look like an improbable couple.

As she put it in a charming — and candid — speech at the University of Georgia law school in March 2017, "Patrick is a quintessential 'Boston Brahmin' — his family can be traced back to England before the Mayflower. ... He and his twin brother are, in fact, the sixth generation in their family to graduate from Harvard College. By contrast, I am only the second generation in my family to go to any college, and I am fairly certain that if you traced my family lineage back past my grandparents — who were raised in Georgia, by the way — you would find that my ancestors were slaves on both sides."

Federal Judge Patti Saris, who hired Jackson as a law clerk straight out of law school, recalls her husband, who now looks full-on prep, as less so back then. At the time, he was a surgical resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, but he was so fascinated by his wife's work he would often go to the courtroom after a long night on call to watch what was going on. As Saris remembers, the young doctor had often been up for 24-plus hours and looked incredibly scruffy, sitting in the back of the courtroom. Finally, one day, the judge's courtroom marshal came up to her and whispered, "Judge, would you like me to remove the homeless man in the back row?"

The doctor, a star in the surgical world today, is the first to toot his wife's horn. His wife said in that Georgia speech that being a federal judge was always her "dream job." But after Obama nominated her in 2012, actually getting that job depended entirely on events beyond her control, namely Obama's reelection.

"And when you add to that," she added, "the fact that I am related by marriage to ... Paul Ryan [then the House speaker], who was at that point running for vice president against President Obama, you can get the sense of what that period was like for me."

Once confirmed, Jackson quickly became known for her long hours of work, a vivid writing style and her infectious and raucous laugh.

Her sense of humor about life was on full display at the University of Georgia when she talked about her two teenage daughters and the "whiplash" between her two roles. On the one hand, she's a federal judge, "which means people generally treat me with respect ... and I control what happens in my courtroom," and on the other, she has a maternal role in which "my daughters make it very clear that as far as they are concerned, I know nothing and should not tell them anything, much less, give them any orders — that is if they talk to me at all."

In her nearly eight years as a federal district court judge, Jackson has amassed a record in cases ranging from criminal law to regulatory, civil rights and constitutional law. Her most prominent decision came when she ordered former White House counsel Don McGahn to appear before the House Judiciary Committee to testify about possible obstruction of justice by then-President Donald Trump.

McGahn had been a star witness in special prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation, and the House committee wanted to question him to determine if there were grounds for impeachment. But Trump ordered McGahn not to testify, and the committee went to court to enforce its subpoena.

In a 118-page decision, Jackson rejected Trump's argument that a president's close advisers and former advisers such as McGahn are absolutely immune to demands they appear and testify before Congress.

That immunity "simply does not exist," Jackson declared. "Presidents are not kings. This means that they do not have subjects bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control." Rather, she wrote, "in this land of liberty, White House employees ... work for the people of the United States."

The Trump administration appealed, and the case is still pending.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tomorrow, the Senate Judiciary Committee begins confirmation hearings for President Biden's first group of judicial nominees. Among them is Ketanji Brown Jackson, already a hot prospect for nomination to the Supreme Court should a vacancy arise. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has this profile.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: If confirmed, Jackson would take the appeals court seat previously held by Judge Merrick Garland prior to his becoming attorney general. She served as a federal trial judge since 2013 and was on President Obama's Supreme Court shortlist. Back then, she was a long shot - not anymore. President Biden has pledged that he would name an African American woman to the court if there's a vacancy, and the 50-year-old judge ticks off just about every box that liberals might want in a nominee and some that conservatives might want too.

Raised in Miami, she graduated with honors from Harvard College and Law School, then clerked for three federal judges, including Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, now 82, who's the most likely member of the high court to step down, though he's given no public indication that he plans to do so. Jackson's parents were both public school teachers, until her father became a lawyer and her mother eventually a school principal. Her parents picked her name from a list of African names sent to her by an aunt in the Peace Corps. It means lovely one. She met her husband Patrick while at Harvard. At first blush, the pair seem an improbable couple, as she put it in a 2017 speech at the University of Georgia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KETANJI BROWN JACKSON: It's interesting because my husband Patrick is the quintessential Boston Brahmin. By contrast, I am only the second generation in my family to go to any college, and I'm fairly certain that if you traced my family back past my grandparents, who were raised in Georgia, by the way, you would find that my ancestors were slaves on both sides.

TOTENBERG: Those who know the couple remember that they were smitten from the start. Dr. Patrick Jackson, a star surgeon in his own right, is the first to toot his wife's horn. And there's a lot to toot about. After her clerkships, she went on to a diverse series of jobs as a public defender representing the indigent in criminal cases, as a litigator and appellate lawyer in private practice, and she served as vice chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission at a time when the commission sought to reduce the draconian penalties that had been put in place for crack cocaine. There, she earned a reputation for building consensus, and most of the panel's decisions were unanimous.

For Jackson, though, sentencing is not an abstract matter. When she was in high school, her uncle was sentenced to life in prison under a three-strikes law for a low-level drug crime. He was granted clemency after serving 30 years. In that Georgia speech, she said that being a federal judge was her dream job. But after President Obama nominated her in 2012, actually getting that job depended entirely on events beyond her control, namely Obama's reelection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN JACKSON: And when you add to this fact that I am related by marriage to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was at that point running for vice president against President Obama, you can get the sense of what that period of time was like for me.

TOTENBERG: Once confirmed, Jackson quickly became known for working long hours, for a vivid writing style and her infectious, raucous laugh. Her sense of humor about life was on full display in that Georgia speech in talking about the whiplash she experiences between her two roles - one as a judge and the other as the mother of two teenage daughters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN JACKSON: I am a federal judge, which means people generally treat me with respect. But in the evenings, when I leave the courthouse and go home, all of my wisdom and knowledge and authority evaporates. My daughters make it very clear that as far as they're concerned, I know nothing. I should not tell them anything, much less give them any orders, that is if they talk to me at all.

TOTENBERG: In short, she's like most mothers of teenage daughters. Though the judge has authored many significant opinions, the most prominent came when she ordered then-President Donald Trump's former White House counsel, Don McGahn, to appear before the House Judiciary Committee to testify about the president's possible obstruction of justice. Trump objected, and in a 118-page opinion, Jackson wrote that, quote, "presidents are not kings. They do not have subjects bound by loyalty or blood whose identity they are entitled to control." The Trump administration appealed, and the case is still pending.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "CIRRUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.