Why Ketanji Brown Jackson Is Different


She would be the first Black woman to serve as a justice and only the third Black person, after Thomas and Thurgood Marshall. Her family includes people who have worked in law enforcement (a police chief, an undercover officer and a sex-crime investigator) and somebody who spent years in prison (an uncle who received a life sentence in 1989 on cocaine charges).

Her parents worked as public-school teachers and administrators, and Jackson graduated from a public high school in the Miami area (the same one that Jeff Bezos attended). If she is confirmed, she would become only the third public high school graduate on the new court, along with Alito and Kagan. “Every other member of the court is a graduate of a Catholic high school,” The Times’s Linda Greenhouse has written. All the justices — as well as Jackson, a Harvard graduate — attended private colleges.

Jackson’s presence would do little to change the court’s ideological balance. She is a Democratic appointee nominated to replace a Democratic appointee (Breyer, for whom she clerked) on a court dominated by Republican appointees. And on many of the court’s biggest cases, a justice’s partisan background predicts his or her vote. Jackson will often be writing or signing dissents, along with Kagan and Sotomayor.

Still, Jackson’s background is relevant. It has the potential to influence the court in subtle ways, and it suggests that the politics of criminal justice have shifted.

For years, presidents avoided nominating former public defenders, partly out of a fear that they would be tarred with the sins of their old clients, as my colleague Carl Hulse points out. Some Senate Republicans are trying a version of this criticism with Jackson, claiming that she is soft on crime because of her résumé. In a background paper on her, the Republican National Committee criticized her work as a public defender representing Guantánamo Bay detainees as “advocacy for these terrorists.” Similarly, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, suggested Jackson had “a special empathy for criminals.”

But President Biden’s decision to nominate her and her excellent chance of confirmation suggest that the bipartisan movement to reform the criminal justice system has shifted the debate. Biden himself briefly worked as a public defender, before running for the Senate in Delaware, and his judicial nominees have had a striking amount of professional diversity. Almost 30 percent worked as public defenders, an Associated Press analysis found.

“Public defenders are not soft on crime — they are hard on injustice,” Laura Coates, a former prosecutor, wrote for CNN. “In a country where race and bias are far too frequently elevated above fairness, public defenders are the welcome foil to balance the system.”


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