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President Biden plans to personally interview potential nominees to the Supreme Court this week, and likely among them will be federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Jackson isn't new to the Supreme Court short list, she was considered a long-shot pick for President Obama in 2016. But she's seen as a leading contender for this vacancy. Geoff Bennett reports on her career and how she got here.
President Biden plans to personally interview potential nominees to the Supreme Court this week, and likely among them will be federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Jackson isn't new to Supreme Court consideration. She was seen as a longshot pick back in 2016, when former President Obama was looking to fill a vacancy. This go-round, she's seen as a leading contender.
Geoff Bennett has this report on how she got here.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, D.C. Court of Appeals: And I'm even-handedly applying the law in every case.
Ketanji Brown Jackson has a resume seemingly tailor-fit for the moment, Harvard grad, Supreme Court clerk, and a federal judge with a deep history in public service.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson:
There is a direct line from my defender service to what I do on the bench.
D.C. born and Miami-raised, Jackson stood out early, excelling in high school as class president and on the debate team. Even then her goal was clear. She's quoted in her senior yearbook, saying: "I want to go into law and eventually have a judicial appointment."
Her teenage years were key to achieving that, as she put it in 2017.
It was my high school experience as a competitive speaker that taught me how to lean in, despite the obstacles.
With honors degrees from Harvard and Harvard Law, Jackson scored three federal clerkships, including one under the justice she may now replace.
Justice Breyer plucked me from obscurity and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.
Neal Katyal, Former Acting U.S. Solicitor General:
And I will say she is adored among the Breyer clerk family.
She made a lasting impression, said fellow Breyer clerk and former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal.
She is fearless. And, also, she's a real person. And, sometimes, that's not always true with Supreme Court justices, who live in an elite, rarefied atmosphere. But she's a judge who's never forgotten the human side of judging.
She'd seen that human side up close, with family on both sides of the justice system, her brother working for the Baltimore Police Department, and her uncle serving life for a cocaine conviction.
Justice demands this result.
She worked to understand and improve the system as a public defender and as vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Margaret Russell, Santa Clara University School of Law: That is an unusual addition and I think a valuable perspective.
Margaret Russell is a constitutional law professor who says Jackson's criminal defense background sets her apart.
There are many former prosecutors who are already on the bench. But what's interesting about a public defender, and really quite rare on the court — it's been a couple of decades — is that focus on the indigent defendant, someone who is really lacking an opportunity, often despised, often overlooked.
On the Sentencing Commission, Jackson continued that work, fighting for more equitable drug penalties.
There is no federal sentencing provision that is more closely identified with unwarranted disparity and perceived systemic unfairness than the 100-1 crack-powder penalty distinction.
That was the first of three Senate confirmations for Jackson. In 2012, she was nominated to the federal bench in Washington, D.C., introduced by then-Congressman Paul Ryan, who's related to Jackson by marriage.
Fmr. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI):
But my praise for Ketanji's intellect, for her character, for her integrity, it's unequivocal. She's an amazing person.
She earned a reputation on the district court for being thorough and methodical.
Sanchi Khare, Former Clerk For Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson:
You can tell she has that speech and debate background, because she likes to engage with the parties.
Sanchi Khare and Neha Sabharwal clerked for Jackson, and say they were struck by her work ethic.
Neha Sabharwal, Former Clerk For Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson:
One thing that she would tell us when I was working for her is that you can't always expect to be the smartest person in the room, but you can promise to be the hardest working. And she truly lives by that philosophy.
And by the warm welcome she extended
And she came out of her office, huge smile, gave me a huge hug, and told me how excited she was that I would be working for her. And that sort of set the tone for the rest of my clerkship experience.
A memory that I had, that I still have of her is this relay race in which several D.C. Circuit and DDC chambers participated.
And at the judge's suggestion, we made matching T-shirts and set up a training schedule and lined up everyone in chambers to participate, because she just has so much spirit for everything that she does, and her diligence is really contagious.
It was there on the district court that Jackson sentenced more than 100 people and penned some of her best-known opinions.
In 2017, she presided over the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy case, delivering a four-year prison sentence for a man who fired his gun in a D.C. pizza shop, wrongly believing it was home to a child sex ring. And, in 2019 she ordered that former Trump White House counsel Don McGahn comply with a congressional subpoena during the Russia investigation. Siding against the Trump administration, she plainly wrote: "Presidents are not kings."
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC):
One thing is clear. The 120-page ruling had a purpose.
It came up at her third Senate appearance, this one for the D.C. Court of Appeals, seen as a tryout for a Supreme Court hearing.
I am both humbled and very grateful to be here once again.
Republicans took aim at Jackson's public defender clients.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR):
Have you ever represented a terrorist at Guantanamo Bay?
About 16 years ago, when I was a federal public defender.
And her identity.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX):
What role does race play, Judge Jackson, in the kind of judge that you have been and the kind of judge that you will be?
I don't think that race plays a role in the kind of judge that I have been and that I would be.
Behind her at those hearings her husband, Dr. Patrick Jackson, and one of their two daughters. The pair met in college and were, as she says, an unlikely match at first.
He and his twin brother are, in fact, six-generation Harvard. 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 ancestry back past my grandparents, who were raised in Georgia, by the way, you would find that my ancestors were slaves on both sides.
The yeas are 53. The nays are 44. The nomination is confirmed.
She was ultimately confirmed with 53 votes, all 50 Democrats, plus Republican Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Lindsey Graham. That put Jackson, now 51 years old, in the seat formerly held by another Supreme Court hopeful.
Barack Obama, Former President of the United States: Today, I am nominating Chief Judge Merrick Brian Garland to join the Supreme Court.
Before then-President Obama made that decision in 2016, Jackson's 11-year-old daughter wrote in with her own suggestion.
"Dear Mr. President, while you are considering judges to fill Justice Scalia's seat on the Supreme Court, I would like to add my mother, Ketanji Brown Jackson, of the District Court to the list.
Six years later it seems President Biden might be listening.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Geoff Bennett.
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Geoff Bennett is the chief Washington correspondent for PBS NewsHour. He is also a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC.
Tess Conciatori is a politics production assistant at PBS NewsHour.
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