Ketanji Brown Jackson is not only the first Black woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court; she is also the first former public defender, and a supporter of criminal justice reform.
Jackson, one of the youngest members of the court, next to Amy Coney Barrett, was destined for the legal profession.
“I want to go into law and eventually have a judicial appointment,” Jackson said in her 1988 yearbook, CNN reported. In high school she participated in speech and debate competitions, including some held at Harvard University.
Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., in 1970 but grew up in Miami, Florida. Her father was a school board attorney and a teacher. Her mother was a school principal. Jackson said that she first started thinking about a career in law as a child watching her father study for law school.
“We lived on the campus of the University of Miami, and my dad would sit there with all his big, thick legal books, and I would bring my coloring books and I would sit next to him and watch him study, and pretend as though I was doing work, as well,” she said in a video shared by President Biden on Twitter.
Jackson’s high school guidance counselor told her not to set her sights too high when she said she wanted to attend Harvard University, according to the White House. She eventually went on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard University, before graduating cum laude in 1996 from Harvard Law School, where she also served as a supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review.
After graduating from law school, Jackson served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, whose seat she is taking. “Justice Breyer was an incredible boss and mentor,” she said in a video shared by President Biden on social media.
“As a clerk, you help the judge or justice draft their opinions and make sure their thoughts are put down carefully in the law. It was just an enormous opportunity to get to see how the justice system works at the highest level,” she said.
Among other posts, Jackson worked in private practice and in the appeals division of the Office of the Federal Public Defender in the District of Columbia. During a senate committee hearing last year, she said that her work as public defender was “an opportunity to help people in need, and to promote core constitutional values.” She also served as assistant special counsel at the U.S. Sentencing Commission, where she later served as the vice chair.
During her time on the commission, “Jackson proposed and reviewed amendments to federal sentencing policies” and “demonstrated a consistent concern about the fundamental fairness of the proposed amendments and the evenhanded treatment of individuals convicted of a crime,” the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund reports in an account of her legal record.
In 2010 Jackson was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as vice-chair of the commission. The senate unanimously confirmed her appointment. During her tenure the commission sought to alleviate harsh sentences for drug crimes by enacting several amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines, including allowing some people with crack cocaine convictions to seek lighter sentences.
The judge helped retroactively reduce sentences for many crack cocaine offenses in 2011, permitting about 12,000 incarcerated individuals to seek reduced sentences and made an estimated 1,800 prisoners eligible for immediate release. Jackson also aided in cutting sentences for most federal drug offenders during her last year as a commissioner.
In 2012, former President Barack Obama nominated Jackson to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and she was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit after being nominated by President Biden.
Jackson wrote hundreds of opinions in her years as a judge for the U.S. District Court and D.C. Circuit Appeals Court, according to the Alliance for Justice, an advocacy group that published a fact sheet on her track record last year. Those opinions were reversed or vacated only 14 times.
Jackson, who is married and the mother of two, said she hopes to be an inspiration to others who may want to go into the legal profession. “I have spent my life admiring lawyers and judges from all backgrounds, but especially those who are African Americans like me, who have worked very hard to get to where they are,” she said in the video shared online.
“I have been inspired by Judge Constance Baker Motley, who was the first Black woman ever to be appointed to the federal bench. She was a civil rights lawyer before she became a judge. It meant a lot to me in my career to have her as an inspiration and I would hope to be an inspiration to other young people, lawyers…who may want to go into the judicial branch.”