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Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson reminds others of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

“I see some of the same qualities in Ketanji that I saw in Ruth,” said first circuit court of appeals Judge Bruce M. Selya, for whom Jackson clerked in 1997-1998. “Some people have the capacity to inspire by example and the force of their reason.”

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in her office at the federal appeals court in Washington on Jan. 28, 2022.Erin Schaff/NYT

PROVIDENCE — President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, shares some of the same qualities as the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, according to a federal judge for whom she worked as a law clerk. But he acknowledged that Jackson will likely face Republican opposition.

In 1997-1998, Jackson clerked for Judge Bruce M. Selya, a Providence resident who is now a senior judge on the Boston-based US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

“One of my old friends was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, God rest her soul,” Selya said in an interview Friday. “I see some of the same qualities in Ketanji that I saw in Ruth – humility, the ability to inspire others in a quiet way, not at the top of her voice. Some people have the capacity to inspire by example and the force of their reason.”

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If confirmed, Jackson would become the first Black woman selected to serve on the high court. She would be the current court’s second Black justice, along with Justice Clarence Thomas, and just the third Black US Supreme Court justice in history.

“Because of the fact that she is a historic nominee, she will potentially become an extremely important person in the African-American community, and she will wear that mantle very well,” Selya said. “It will not go to her head. She will be her same authentic self.”

He predicted Jackson will in time be regarded overall as a trailblazer, such as Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female US Supreme Court justice.

Selya, who was appointed to the federal appeals court in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, said Biden’s choice of Jackson would be a “terrific” appointment.

“She is absolutely everything you would want in a Supreme Court justice,” he said. “Intellectually, she is very smart, very well informed, and she is very hard working and focused. She gets the big picture.”

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Selya predicted Jackson’s appointment will face opposition from Republicans, but he expects she will be confirmed with a “handful” of Republican supporters.

“No one is going to sail through confirmation in this day and age,” he said. “The days when justices were confirmed by unanimous votes are as buried in the history books as the days of the Roman Empire.”

Biden’s pledge to choose the court’s first Black woman immediately rankled some Republicans, with several far-right lawmakers and influential leaders suggesting that Biden is choosing diversity over qualifications. That rhetoric raises the prospect that Biden’s nominee could face a version of the opposition that the first Black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, faced during his confirmation in 1967.

But Selya said, “If anyone attempts to make that kind of attack, to portray this appointment as an example of affirmative action, then that will fall flat as a pancake. She has all the tickets – both in terms of her intelligence, her education, her work experience, and her demonstrated judicial temperament.”

Jackson, 51, served as a district judge and an appeals court judge in the District of Columbia, one of the country’s busiest jurisdictions, with oversight of cases involving Washington, D.C. government affairs, including government overreach. She was appointed as a district judge in 2013, and to the appeals court in June 2021. She received her law degree from Harvard Law School in 1996.

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Selya said he hires three law clerks each year. He receives 600 to 700 applications each time, and he only interviews the top eight or nine applicants. “So just the fact she made it that far into the process shows you that on paper she was outstanding, and in person she was even better,” he said. “She also knows what she wants and is very determined.”

During the interview, Selya told Jackson that he required his law clerks to live in Providence so they would not spend a lot of time traveling. At the time, Jackson had just gotten married, and her husband, Dr. Patrick G. Jackson, was a surgeon with a residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. So Selya asked her if living in Providence would be a “non-starter” for her.

“She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Judge, I want this position, and I will meet whatever the requirements are,’ ” Selya recalled. “‘If the requirement is to live in Providence, I will rent an apartment in Providence, and Patrick and I will get by for a year.’”

Selya, who is noted for the extensive vocabulary he brings to bear in writing his decisions, said he’s not sure if Jackson will bring that sesquipedality to the Supreme Court.

“I don’t know what rubbed off on her and what didn’t,” he said. “But I’ve read opinions she had written as a district court judge and on the circuit court, and I know she started off as a very good writer back as a clerk. She writes very clearly and very convincingly.”

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Selya said he is convinced that Jackson won’t be changed by all the attention that will focus on her in the days and years ahead.

He said Jackson has talked to him several times since the White House began considering her for the Supreme Court nomination, and at the end of their last phone call, she asked to speak to his wife, Cindy.

“With all this on her mind, she spent time gabbing with my wife – two women who have been friendly over the years,” Selya said. “I said to myself: This is not going to change Ketanji.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.