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Ketanji Brown Jackson

Ketanji Brown Jackson

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Ketanji Brown Jackson is a former federal judge and public defender and the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Who Is Ketanji Brown Jackson?

Ketanji Brown Jackson, born Ketanji Onyika Brown in 1970, is a former federal judge and public defender nominated by President Joe Biden to become an associate justice on the Supreme Court. She was the first Black woman to be nominated—and confirmed—for a seat on the high court. Jackson grew up in Miami and shared in her high school yearbook her goal to eventually receive a judicial appointment. She obtained both her undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard and is married to a fellow Harvard alum.

Supreme Court Nomination

On February 25, 2022, President Biden announced he was nominating Jackson to fill the Supreme Court seat left open by the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer. The U.S. Senate voted to confirm her on April 7, 2022. 

Jackson is the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, the first federal public defender to sit on the court and the first justice since Thurgood Marshall to represent criminal defendants.

Though Jackson worked for several private law firms, she spent most of her legal career as a public servant. After earning her law degree from Harvard in 1996, she clerked for two federal judges. She held a Supreme Court clerkship for Justice Breyer during the 1999-2000 term.

Jackson took a job with the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2003, the first of her two stints on the commission. From 2005 to 2007, she worked as an assistant federal public defender in Washington, D.C. Her caseload included representing indigent clients and some detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.

Jackson returned to private practice before being selected to serve as vice-chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2010. She was seen as a consensus builder in shaping federal sentencing policy at a time when federal prisons were over capacity. The commission came to unanimous agreement to lower federal drug sentences and granted this relief retroactively.

Ascension to the Bench

In 2012, Jackson was nominated by President Barack Obama to join the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The Senate confirmed her by voice vote in March 2013.

On this court, Jackson's notable cases included a 2019 ruling that President Donald Trump's former White House counsel could not use executive privilege to avoid a congressional subpoena. Her decision noted, "Presidents are not kings."

On April 19, 2021, President Joe Biden nominated Jackson to join the U.S. Court of Appeals. Her Senate confirmation hearing had some contentious moments, such as when one senator asked if Jackson had been concerned that her role as a public defender had returned criminals to the streets. Jackson answered that her work had been a crucial part of the justice system.

In April 2022, Jackson was confirmed with a 53-47 vote, with the support of 50 Democratic senators and three Republicans. 

When Was Ketanji Brown Jackson Born?

Ketanji Onyika Brown was born on September 14, 1970, in Washington, D.C. Her parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, wanted to honor their ancestry and asked a relative serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa for a list of African names for their daughter. The name they selected, Ketanji Onyika, means "lovely one."

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LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 09: Actress Irene Bedard attends the premiere of Vox Box Entertainment's "Ron and Laura Take Back America" at Sundance Cinema on March 9, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

Irene Bedard

Joy Harjo, writer during 2005 Sundance Film Festival - "A Thousand Roads" Portraits at HP Portrait Studio in Park City, Utah, United States. (Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage)

Joy Harjo

Childhood and Education

Jackson did well in school while growing up in Miami. At Palmetto Junior High, she was selected as a school "mayor." She became president of her class at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, was voted "most likely to succeed" and stood out on the school's vaunted speech and debate team.

Jackson excelled at oratory, traveling across the country for speech competitions and becoming a national champion. Her visit to Harvard University for one competition inspired Jackson to apply to the Ivy League school. She enrolled there in 1988.

Jackson's college experience included joining an improv troupe, On Thin Ice. She also performed in a production of Little Shop of Horrors and was once a scene partner to Matt Damon in drama class.

In addition, Jackson focused on her studies and future legal career. Her senior thesis was "The Hand of Oppression: Plea Bargaining Processes and the Coercion of Criminal Defendants." She graduated magna cum laude in 1992.

Law School

Prior to law school, Jackson spent a year working for Time magazine and serving as an intern for the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. In 1993, she entered Harvard Law School. She became an editor on the law review and graduated cum laude in 1996.

Marriage and Children

Jackson married Patrick Graves Jackson in 1996. The pair met while they were both undergrads at Harvard. Though their backgrounds were different—Jackson was a Black woman whose guidance counselor had discouraged her from setting her sights on Harvard, while Patrick was a white man whose family members had attended the university for generations—they fell in love.

Jackson and her husband, who became a surgeon, have two daughters: Talia and Leila. In 2016, Leila wrote a letter to President Obama recommending her mother for the Supreme Court vacancy that resulted from the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Through her marriage to Patrick, Jackson became related to Republican politician Paul Ryan: Ryan's wife's sister is married to Patrick's twin brother. Ryan introduced Jackson to the Senate when she was nominated to join the U.S. District Court. He has said of Jackson, "Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, for her integrity, is unequivocal."

Family Background

Jackson's interest in pursuing a legal career stretches back to seeing her father leave his job as a history teacher to enroll in law school. As her father studied legal texts, a preschool-age Jackson colored next to him.

Jackson's father obtained his law degree and went on to be the chief attorney for the Miami-Dade school system. Her mother was also a teacher before she became the principal of a magnet public high school.

Jackson's younger brother served as a police officer and in the military before also becoming a lawyer. An uncle was Miami police chief in the 1990s.

Jackson has another uncle who got involved in drug-related crime. By 1989, he'd received a life sentence thanks to a three-strikes law. His sentence was commuted in November 2016. Jackson referred her uncle to a law firm known for handling clemency petitions but otherwise was not involved in the commutation of his sentence.

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