What Ketanji Brown Jackson Could Bring to the Supreme Court

12 minute read

As she braced for graduation from Miami Palmetto Senior High School in 1988, Ketanji Brown wrote in her high school yearbook that she wanted to be a judge.

34 years later, she walked into the Cross Hall at the White House and President Joe Biden nominated her to be the first Black woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“For too long our government and our courts haven’t looked like America,” Biden said while introducing Jackson on Friday. “I believe it’s time we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation, with a nominee of extraordinary qualifications.”

Jackson would be the first Black woman to sit on the court in its 232 year history, and her confirmation would bring the bench to near gender parity, with four women and five men. A third of the court would be made up of people of color.

Speaking at the White House on Friday, Jackson said that she shares a birthday with Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to ever be 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’s life and career have been a true inspiration to me as I have pursued this professional path. [If confirmed] ​​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.”

Throughout her career, Jackson has built a reputation with colleagues and observers across the political spectrum as a thoughtful and collegial unifier whose approach to judging is informed by her years of public service. A meticulous writer, she’s known as an even-keeled judge who writes detailed, sometimes lengthy opinions. During her eight years on the D.C. District Court, Jackson had to weigh in on thorny political cases during Donald Trump’s presidency. But she has never ruled on some of the most controversial topics that would come before her on the Supreme Court, including abortion, voting rights or gun rights. And her confirmation would not tilt the ideological makeup of the court, which has a firm 6-3 conservative supermajority. Court-watchers expect she’ll settle into the liberal minority alongside Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. But Jackson isn’t a firebrand. Those who know her predict she’ll seek consensus-building on the high court and look for compromises with her conservative colleagues.

Some say this thinking was influenced by her clerkship with Justice Stephen Breyer— the man she has been nominated to replace. “She learned from his willingness to work with colleagues of different viewpoints,” Biden said of Jackson’s time clerking for Breyer from 1999 to 2000.

Now the confirmation process will move to the evenly-divided Senate, where Jackson will face the bitter partisan politics that have consumed many Supreme Court fights, on her way to joining the high court during one of its most momentous periods in recent history. Some high-stakes cases are already set to come before the Supreme Court next term, including one that could decide the fate of affirmative action in higher education.

If confirmed, Jackson would likely be on the bench in time to hear that case and many others that will affect the lives of people throughout the country. And at 51, she is poised to serve as one of the most powerful people in America for decades.

Jackson with D.C. District Court colleagues.
Jackson with D.C. District Court colleagues.Courtesy Ketanji Brown Jackson—The White House

‘A worthy calling’

During her eight years on the D.C. district court, Jackson had to render decisions on heated political cases.

In 2019, she ruled that President Donald Trump could not prevent White House counsel Don McGahn from responding to a legislative subpoena on the grounds of absolute immunity. “Presidents are not kings,” Jackson wrote in that 2019 decision, which totaled an eye-catching 119 pages. “They do not have subjects bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control.” Republican Senators questioned Jackson about the ruling in her 2021 confirmation hearings for her role on the D.C. Circuit Court, and it may prove an issue once again in the coming nomination battle.

It was not the only time Jackson would rule against the Trump Administration. In 2018, she sided with a group of federal employee unions who had challenged several of Trump’s executive orders on the grounds that the orders limited their collective bargaining rights. (The ruling was ultimately overturned on appeal.) But Jackson also sided with the Trump Administration in 2019, ruling that the Department of Homeland Security could waive environmental laws in order to build a border wall between New Mexico and Mexico.

Jackson became known for opinions that were as deeply researched as they were sometimes long-winded. She issued several noteworthy First Amendment opinions—such as her 2013 ruling in which she allowed a civil action brought by a person who’d been arrested for screaming obscenities in a public park to proceed—and criminal justice cases, including her 2015 ruling in favor of a deaf inmate to whom the D.C. jail had failed to provide a sign-language interpreter during his period of incarceration.

Last year, Biden nominated Jackson to the powerful D.C. Circuit Court, and she was confirmed by a bipartisan vote of 53-44, with three Republican Senators voting in her favor.

She’s been careful to honor precedent on both courts, her colleague on the D.C. Circuit Court Judge Robert L. Wilkins tells TIME. If confirmed to the high court, he predicts she’d strive to figure out how to be most effective “in the majority when possible, and if not then in the minority.” In a 6-3 court, this could mean seeking collegiality and compromises with the conservative justices. “She’s not someone who is going to necessarily be a bull in the china shop,” Wilkins says. “But she’s also not going to join an institution and not question what the institution is doing and how it’s doing it, why it’s doing it, and whether that’s the best way to be doing things.”

Jackson’s professional career prior to joining the federal bench also sheds light on how she might perform as a justice. The U.S. Sentencing Commission included a mix of Democrats and Republicans during Jackson’s tenure as the commission’s vice chair from 2010 to 2014, yet many of the commission’s decisions were unanimous. Jackson played a key role in achieving such unity, says Rachel Barkow, who served on the commission with her. Like Justices on the Supreme Court, commissioners work closely with colleagues across the aisle and come to conclusions that directly impact Americans’ lives. “You have to build those relationships with your fellow commissioners,” says Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department’s Inspector General who served as vice chair of the commission before Jackson. “You have to be willing to compromise.”

Jackson participated in the commission’s reassessment of the 100-to-1 crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity, after Congress declined to say whether its 2010 reduction of sentences for crack convictions should retroactively grant relief to people sentenced under the prior guidelines. Jackson firmly argued for the Commission to take action. “I believe the commission has no choice but to make this right,” she told the commission in 2011. “Our failure to do so would harm not only those serving sentences pursuant to the prior guideline penalty, but all who believe in equal application of the law and the fundamental fairness of our criminal justice system.”

Jackson served as a federal public defender in D.C. for two and a half years before serving as a commissioner, representing indigent clients in criminal cases and detainees held in the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “She wanted to help people who are indigent and in trouble,” says D.C. Federal Public Defender A. J. Kramer, who Jackson worked for from 2003 to 2005. “I think she saw it as a worthy calling.”

From left, Antoinette Coakley, Nina Coleman, Lisa Fairfax and Ketanji Brown Jackson in 1996.
From left, Antoinette Coakley, Nina Coleman, Lisa Fairfax and Ketanji Brown Jackson in 1996.Courtesy of Lisa Fairfax

‘Go ladies’

Jackson’s academic and professional ambitions have always been nurtured by her close communities of family and friends—even when the balance between them was hard to find.

Jackson was raised in Miami, Florida, in a family of “virtuous, smart, big hearted people,” says her childhood friend Stephen Rosenthal. Her mother was a school teacher, and father became counsel for the Miami-Dade County School District. They instilled in Jackson and the rest of the family a deep appreciation for public service and education, friends say. Her brother went on to serve in the military, and two of her uncles served in law enforcement.

As a teenager, Jackson was her high school class president and a national debate champion, and friends say she exuded natural charisma. “Imagine the Simone Biles of oratory,” Rosenthal says.

Upon entering Harvard University for her undergraduate studies, Jackson met some of the most important guiding figures in life: her eventual husband Patrick Jackson, now a surgeon at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, and her close knit group of female friends.

“One of the first times I met her… she came bopping into the room, and I was like, ‘She’s so tiny, who is this person?’” recalls her friend Nina Simmons. “And then she started talking and I thought, ‘Wow, who is this person?” Jackson’s college friends called themselves “the ladies,” and when they’d go out dancing, Jackson would always hype them up, Simmons recalls, yelling, “Go ladies! Go ladies!” They’ve stayed lifelong friends.

Jackson graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in 1992. (Her first job out of college was as a reporter and researcher for TIME magazine from 1992 to 1993, where she wrote stories on economic policy and rising drug prices.) She returned to Harvard for law school, where she served on the prestigious Harvard Law Review. She was attentive to mentoring younger women, particularly other women of color, says Tracy-Elizabeth Clay, who was a year below her on the Review. “She had this unique sense of confidence,” Clay recalls. “She was comfortable in her skin in a place that wasn’t necessarily meant for her to be comfortable.”

After graduating Harvard Law in 1996, Jackson clerked for Massachusetts District Court Judge Patti B. Saris and First Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya, before working in private practice for a year and then clerking on the Supreme Court with Breyer. Selya recalls that Jackson had been newly married when she applied for his clerkship in Rhode Island, and her husband was completing his residency in Massachusetts. “She looked me right in the eye and told me that, ‘If you make me an offer, I will accept it and I will move to Providence. And Patrick and I will work it out,” Selya recalls. “I was very impressed by that, because there aren’t many young married people who would unhesitatingly make that kind of choice.”

Jackson has been open about the difficulties that come with balancing her career and her family. In a 2017 speech before the University of Georgia School of Law, Jackson spoke about the period in her life after she completed her clerkship for Justice Breyer in 2000 and began working for the law firm Goodwin Procter in Boston. She gave birth to her eldest daughter Talia a few months later. “The firm was very supportive, but I don’t think it is possible to overstate the degree of difficulty that many young women and especially new mothers face in the law firm context,” Jackson said in the speech. “That was a realization for me, the understanding that if I was going to leave my baby and go to work outside the home, I needed to find a law job that was not only fulfilling, but was also compatible with the needs of my family.” Jackson left Goodwin Procter in 2002, becoming “something of a professional vagabond, moving from place to place as my family needs and circumstances changed,” she said. She joined the U.S. sentencing commission as assistant special counsel in 2003, and her second daughter was born four years later.

Family is deeply important to her, friends say, and being a mother is as meaningful to her as her commitments to the legal profession. “To my daughters, Talia and Leila, you are the light of my life,” Jackson said Friday afternoon. “Please know whatever title I may hold, or whatever job I may have, I will still be your mom. That will never change.“

Now, Jackson’s daughters will grow up in a world that is far different than the one she herself came up in. A world that’s seen significant strides in racial and gender equity; a world where they watched on Friday as their mother was nominated as the first Black woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com