By Nyah Marshall
Americans around the country, especially legal scholars and Black women, are praising President Biden’s announcement today that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is his nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. If confirmed, Jackson would make history as the first Black woman and the first former federal public defender to ever serve as a Supreme Court justice.
“For too long, our government, our courts haven’t looked like America,” said this afternoon at the White House, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Judge Jackson.
“I believe that we should have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation with a nominee of extraordinary qualifications and that will inspire all young people to believe that they can one day serve our country at the highest level.”
Jackson, 51, currently sits on the D.C. Court of Appeals and has ample experience that proves her to be more than fitting for the appointment. She was three times confirmed by the Senate, twice unanimously, to serve on the U.S. Sentencing Commission and appointed by President Barack Obama to be on the D.C. federal district court.
In her acceptance speech today, Jackson shared that she happens to share a birthday with Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman appointed as a federal judge.
“Today, I proudly stand on Judge Motley’s shoulders, sharing not only her birthday, but also her steadfast and courageous commitment to equal justice under law,” Jackson said.
“Judge Motley for life and career has been a true inspiration to me, as I have pursued this professional path,” she explained. “And if I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed, as the next Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law, and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded, will inspire future generations of Americans.”
“Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is an outstanding nominee,” said Danielle Holley-Walker, dean and professor at the Howard University School of Law, whose alumni include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
As Holley-Walker points out, another historic component to Jackson’s background is that she has devoted the majority of her career serving the public. As a federal public defender, Jackson represented defendants on appeal who did not have the means to pay for a lawyer and worked to identify errors that occurred during their trials.
“I think one of the most important things for those of us who are interested in issues of justice and equality is that she served as a public defender, and she would not only be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, she would be the first public defender to ever serve on the Supreme Court.”
Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., in 1970 and grew up in Florida with her parents who are both graduates of HBCUs. After graduating from Harvard, Jackson clerked for three federal jurists, including retiring Justice Stephen Breyer.
She then began representing clients in criminal and civil appellate matters at Goodwin Procter LLP, appearing before the Supreme Court in the case McGuire v. Reilly. In this case, she argued on behalf of Massachusetts reproductive rights groups that the state law should be upheld prohibiting anti-abortion protesters from harassing people seeking reproductive health care.
During her seven years as a district judge, Jackson issued several rulings on topics like federal environmental law, employment discrimination and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The most notable one included Committee on the Judiciary v. McGahn, in which she ruled that Don McGahn, the former White House counsel to President Donald Trump, was required to testify before the House Judiciary Committee as part of its investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
In her short tenure on the D.C. Circuit, Jackson was involved in the case against Trump’s efforts to block the release of documents related to the Jan. 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol. A federal district judge in Washington rejected Trump’s request to block the disclosure of the documents, and the D.C. Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Patricia Millett that Jackson joined, upheld that ruling.
Biden’s announcement came nearly a month after Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement and two years to the day when Biden pledged his commitment to appoint a Black woman as a justice.
“I’m looking forward to making sure there’s a Black woman on the Supreme Court to make sure we in fact get everyone represented,” Biden said during the South Carolina primary in February 2020.
Biden’s selection of Jackson gives him a chance to deliver on this campaign promise to Black voters, who were crucial to his election win. In fact, 86% of Black women voters supported prioritizing such a nomination, according to a poll by Change Research and Higher Heights for America, a political home for Black women and allies to organize collectively.
Biden met with at least three potential Supreme Court nominees, all whom are Black women, before choosing Jackson. They included Leondra Kruger who sits on the California Supreme Court, and J. Michelle Childs, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina.
“There were lots of exceptionally qualified capable women to choose from, but Biden’s selection of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson demonstrates that there’s no need for America’s highest court to be off limits to Black women anymore,” said strategist and political commentator Donna Brazile, who is the Gwendolyn S. and Colbert I. King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard University.
Jotaka Eaddy, founder of #WinWithBlackWomen (WWBW), shared similar sentiments. “With this nomination, President Biden and Vice President Harris will once again elevate a woman, and in this case, a Black woman, to a position that has long been covered by a cement ceiling,” Eaddy said in a statement. “Today that ceiling is shattered into a million pieces.”
Known for making a significant impact on the historic election of the nation’s first Black woman vice president, #WinWithBlackWomen also stated that it will work to “ensure that Judge Jackson receives a fair and expeditious confirmation process.” WWBW is a collective of Black women leaders from public and private sectors committed to advancing and uplifting Black women, families and communities.
Though Jackson’s appointment would be historic, it will not change the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court being that it still has a majority of conservative justices. Like many who support Jackson’s nomination, Holley-Walker believes that this is an important moment in the history of the nation.
“We’ve only had seven justices in the entire history of the U.S. Supreme Court who have not been white men,” Holley-Walker explained. “So, I think it’s both an incredible day for our country, specifically for Black women, and also to have such a highly qualified nominee. We hope to see her confirmed in the way that is represented in terms of her credentials.”
Howard law professor Alice Martin Thomas also sees Jackson as a highly qualified nominee who will be a fair judge.
“I believe she’s a tenacious personality,” Thomas said. “I believe she will not shrink. And she’s going to have to stand up against a torrent of negativity and ugliness that we’ve all had to deal with. … She is more than capable and able of doing it graciously”
“She will stand up for what’s right,” Thomas added. She will advance her point of view. And she’ll be fair. That’s all we can ask of a judge. I’m also glad she’s young. She has her whole life in front of her.”
Nyah Marshall is a reporter and regional bureau chief for HUNewsService.com.