fb-pixel Skip to main content
OPINION

Public defenders like Ketanji Brown Jackson belong on the Supreme Court

Some Republicans have complained about having a public defender on the Supreme Court. But their objections run squarely afoul of the Constitution.

US Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, March 23, in Washington.Anna Moneymaker/Getty

The US Senate is delivering on its constitutional responsibility to provide “advice and consent” on the president’s nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve on the US Supreme Court. Throughout her legal career, Jackson has accumulated a depth of experience and vital insight into our legal system. She will join the court with more trial court experience than any sitting justice and, if confirmed, will be only the second sitting justice to have served at all three levels of the federal judiciary: district, appellate, and the Supreme Court. I fully support Jackson’s nomination, and believe we need more judges like her with diverse legal experience on the federal bench.

Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court is extraordinary and historic, for more than one reason. If confirmed, she will be the first Black woman to sit on the court, bringing long-overdue representation to the bench. She will also be the first former federal public defender to serve on our nation’s highest court.

Advertisement



The Sixth Amendment of our Constitution grants criminal defendants the right to have the assistance of counsel in their defense. But it wasn’t until 1963, in Gideon v. Wainwright, that the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Constitution required state courts to appoint lawyers for defendants who could not otherwise afford one. This fundamental and essential right is safeguarded by the work public defenders do every day. Some Republicans have complained about the very idea of having a public defender on the Supreme Court. But their objections run squarely afoul of the Constitution.

Republicans have attacked Jackson’s work representing Guantanamo Bay detainees. Those attacks fly in the face of a fundamental principle of the American legal system: Everybody — even unpopular or unsympathetic defendants — deserves legal representation.

When asked about her motivations to become a public defender, Jackson explained that “every person who is accused of criminal conduct by the government, regardless of wealth and despite the nature of the accusations, is entitled to the assistance of counsel.” Every American who supports and defends the Constitution should welcome a Supreme Court justice who has worked so hard to turn constitutional ideals into reality.

Advertisement



Our legal system, as imperfect as it may be, strives to deliver equal justice under the law — and that means quality legal representation for everyone, not just the wealthy and the well-connected. It is only because of the commitment of public defenders, civil rights attorneys, and legal aid lawyers that we can aspire to achieve that ideal. That’s why we need Jackson’s expertise on the Supreme Court.

Diverse legal backgrounds matter for our judiciary. For far too long, the federal courts have been dominated by those whose principal legal experiences have involved prosecuting offenders with the full power of the federal government, or who have exclusively represented the wealthy and well-connected at fancy law firms. But most people who end up in court don’t benefit from that kind of power. We need more judges with experience representing the voiceless and disadvantaged. It matters that someone nominated to sit on our nation’s highest court has represented people other than corporate clients, has real experience with people who can’t afford lawyers, and has real experience fighting for the public interest.

All judges draw on their past personal and professional experience when analyzing the law and reviewing the facts of individual cases. Judges who have experience representing people who can’t afford a lawyer or who have been deprived of their civil rights are well equipped to understand the circumstances that bring Americans into the courtroom. It is that background that strengthens public trust in our legal institutions and reinforces the legitimacy that our judicial system requires.

Advertisement



Jackson’s work in the trenches, representing those without means or power, provides her with an invaluable perspective into our system of justice and the opportunity to effectuate the fundamental right to counsel outlined in our Constitution. Our judiciary will undoubtedly be made stronger once Jackson is confirmed to the Supreme Court. The fact that her legal background is unusual for our federal courts is not an indictment of her candidacy — it is an indictment of the narrow, blinkered perspective of our judiciary. We need more judges like her.

Elizabeth Warren is a US senator from Massachusetts.