fb-pixel Skip to main content

Ketanji Brown Jackson was just sworn in as first Black woman to serve on SCOTUS. Here’s what you need to know about her

Ketanji Brown Jackson, associate justice of the US Supreme Court and a nominee of US President Joe Biden, swore in to a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., on Monday, March 21, 2022. Jackson will make history today as she is sworn in to be the first Black woman on the US Supreme Court following the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer.Al Drago/Bloomberg

United States Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in Thursday at noon as the Supreme Court’s 116th justice, making history as the first Black woman to serve on the nation’s highest court. Only two other Black justices and only four women have served on the Supreme Court in its 232-year history.

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.

Advertisement



But she also has ties to Massachusetts and Rhode Island. She received her law degree from Harvard Law School in 1996, and served as a supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review.

She also clerked for two judges at the federal courthouse in Boston: Judge Bruce M. Selya, a Providence resident who is now a senior judge on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit; and District Court Judge Patti B. Saris, a former District Court chief.

Here are some key takeaways from Jackson’s background to keep in mind:

Her background in criminal defense will make her unique

Jackson is the first justice with a background in criminal defense to join the court in more than a half-century. The last justice to have such a background was Thurgood Marshall, who was the first Black person named to the high court when he was appointed in 1967. He retired from the court in 1991.

Since then, the court has featured former government prosecutors, or lawyers with backgrounds in civil law — as attorneys for plaintiffs or for defendants. Criminal justice advocates say the court needs to have a balance of perspectives, and Jackson would bring that with her years as a public defender. Before she was named a judge, Jackson worked for private firms focusing on criminal appeals work and white-collar crime in state and federal courts, and she was also an assistant public defender in the District of Columbia, specializing in appeals. She’s a member of the Judicial Conference Committee on Defender Services.

Advertisement



Jackson also served for several years on the US Sentencing Commission, including as vice chair, a role in which she helped review sentencing guidelines for federal crimes. Her work helped lead to a reduction in sentences for drug crimes, and to the retroactive reduction of sentences for thousands of defendants convicted during the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly crack cocaine offenses.

As the Globe’s Jazmine Ulloa previously reported in the Globe, Jackson ruled in favor of federal employees who had challenged Trump’s executive orders limiting the rights of federal workers to negotiate their workplace conditions through the collective bargaining process. She also ruled in 2019 that Trump’s White House counsel at the time, Donald F. McGahn II, had to comply with a House subpoena requesting his testimony as part of the first impeachment probe. She ruled that McGahn could possibly refuse to answer some questions “on the basis of privilege.” Still, conservatives accused her of partisanship. Both decisions were later reversed on appeal. But she also has proved agreeable with Trump in other matters, such as when she dismissed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in relation to the president’s efforts to build a wall along the US-Mexico border in New Mexico.

Advertisement



The news website Vox also pointed out that Jackson was a member of an appeals court panel that ruled that the US House investigation into the Jan. 6 uprising at the Capitol could obtain certain White House records — over Trump’s objections. That decision, the website pointed out, was upheld by the Supreme Court.

In her years on the Sentencing Commission, Jackson worked closely with Boston-based US District Judge Patti B. Saris, the chair of the Sentencing Commission at the time. Jackson also clerked for Saris as a law student. She also clerked for Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who is retiring at the very moment Jackson will be sworn in. She also worked for Judge Bruce M. Selya, of the Appeals Court for the First Circuit in Massachusetts. In that sense, she completed the rare trifecta of clerkships in all three levels of the federal judiciary.

All three judges spoke at Jackson’s investiture ceremony for her appointment to the District of Columbia district court in May 2013; Breyer administered her oath of office.

“It’s our family,” Breyer said, referring to the attendance of him, Saris, Selya, and others. “Ketanji’s going to make a good judge … it’s not just the intelligence and hard work, though that’s part of it. She sees things from different points of view, and she sees somebody else’s point of view and understands it. We all feel that’s our judicial family. That’s what we’re here for.”

Advertisement



Selya said Jackson was selected for one of his clerkships in 1996 out of more than 800 applicants, and she proved her qualities quickly, so much that he recommended her for her clerkship with Breyer. “She proved to be hard-working, dependable, intelligent, and most important, sensible,” he said at the investiture ceremony. “She understood, even as a young woman, the role of the law in the courts and our society, and her perceptions were mature.”

Saris said she first met Jackson when she was a 25-year-old fresh out of law school, editor of the Harvard Law Review. “She was full of energy and enthusiasm for the law,” Saris said. “She had a sharp intellect and a warm, infectious smile. It was a no-brainer to hire her as a law clerk, and thus started a clerkship and a friendship for life.”

Saris said that Jackson “loved the drama of the litigation.” She worked on cases ranging from claims brought by BUBoston University students under the Americans with Disabilities Act to constitutional challenges to a state sex offender registry board. She learned to support her decisions by citing established laws and past cases, so that her decisions could withstand appeal and not be overturned. The BU case began a landmark precedent, Saris said. “She learned early on about the slippery slope of the law and binding precedent,” Saris said.

Later, Saris said, she looked to Jackson as a colleague, when they served together on the Sentencing Commission. Saris recalled Jackson’s “big picture” approach to fair sentencing policy, and her conviction to the effort to reduce sentences for certain drug crimes, particularly crack cocaine offenses. In a speech before the Sentencing Commission, Jackson quoted Martin Luther King Jr. to say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Advertisement



“I have no doubt that Judge Jackson will be the kind of judge who blends common sense and pragmatism with this overarching sense of justice,” Saris said.

Here’s how the swearing-in went down Thursday

Jackson was sworn in not long after the court issues its final opinions in a tumultuous and controversial term, that included overturning Roe v. Wade’s guarantee of the right to an abortion.

In a ceremony streamed on the court’s website, Jackson recited two oaths required of Supreme Court justices, one administered by Breyer and the other by Chief Justice John Roberts.

Biden nominated Jackson in February, a month after Breyer, 83, announced he would retire at the end of the court’s term, assuming his successor had been confirmed.

Breyer’s earlier-than-usual announcement and the condition he attached was a recognition of the Democrats’ tenuous hold on the Senate in an era of hyper-partisanship, especially surrounding federal judgeships.

The Senate confirmed Jackson’s nomination in early April, by a 53-47 mostly party-line vote that included support from three Republicans.

She has been in a sort of judicial limbo ever since, remaining a judge on the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., but not hearing any cases. Biden elevated her to that court from the district judgeship to which she was appointed by President Barack Obama.

Jackson will be able to begin work immediately, but the court will have just finished the bulk of its work until the fall, apart from emergency appeals that occasionally arise. That will give her time to settle in and familiarize herself with the roughly two dozen cases the court already has agreed to hear starting in October as well as hundreds of appeals that will pile up over the summer.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.