Supreme Court Prospect Ketanji Brown Jackson Confirmed To Appeals Court Democrats and Republicans alike know that Jackson is on President Biden's Supreme Court shortlist should there be a vacancy.


Ketanji Brown Jackson, A Supreme Court Prospect, Is Confirmed To A Key Appeals Court

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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