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Ketanji Brown Jackson: A decisive force applying rules to any and all

The D.C. judge ruled in 2018 that Trump overstepped his authority in order about federal workers' right to collectively bargain.
Illustration of Ketanji Jackson.
Adriana Bellet / for NBC News

"She Thrives: Black Women Making History Today" puts the spotlight on 10 amazing individuals whose achievements transcend generations, occupations and regions. These women — all leaders in their communities — are truly elevating the conversation around black identity, politics and culture. Meet all of our "She Thrives" honorees here.


Ketanji Brown Jackson


Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia




Miami. Lives in Washington, D.C.

Words you live by

"To whom much is given, much is required."

Your hero

Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to serve as a federal judge

How she thrives

Newton's third law of physics — for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction — offers an imperfect but useful metaphor in U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s life.

When Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, Jackson made the Obama administration’s short list of potential history-making replacements. Jackson, nominated to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by President Barack Obama in 2012, ranks among the infinitesimal group of black women who have been considered and vetted for a slot on the nation's highest court.

Although Obama decided to nominate Jackson’s colleague, Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, Jackson remains in the small group of people many court watchers expect to be nominated again in the future.

“It is a very complicated process that I probably should not say too much about,” Jackson told NBCBLK. “I think anybody sane has mixed feelings about anything so auspicious. It was a tremendous honor to even be thought of, so I felt very honored and flattered. But, it is also a political process, so it’s scary.”

Jackson is not often rattled. She is the kind of judge who writes 148-page opinions which make her rationale clear. She was the kind of student who applied early decision to Harvard, where she earned her undergraduate and law school degrees. And she’s the kind of woman who speaks about the time her husband delayed his surgical training for the sake of her career, of the period in which she embraced an out-of-state commute for the sake of his career, and even of the year when she moved to Washington, D.C., with their child's nanny six months ahead of her husband for a job opportunity.

A former appellate lawyer in the private sector, federal public defender who handled appeals, clerk to Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Stephen Breyer, staff lawyer and later Obama-appointed member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Jackson is accustomed to deciding big matters.

That brings us back to the laws of physics and life. Obama’s decision to go with Garland, regarded as a compromise to win Republican support, devolved into a long-running political conflict in which the GOP made the unprecedented claim that Obama had no right to fill the vacancy. But federal court rules have put Jackson in a position to decide consequential matters, often involving the Obama and Trump administrations anyway because D.C. is the seat of the federal government.

On the list: a 2018 case in which Jackson ruled that President Donald Trump overstepped his authority in an order curtailing the ability of federal employees to collectively bargain. Also, a 2013 case in which meatpackers tried to block Obama administration rules requiring labels to identify the animal’s country of origin. Jackson upheld the rule. The meatpackers appealed and lost.

In 2017, Jackson sentenced the so-called “pizzagate” gunman, a North Carolina man who held a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant at gunpoint based on his belief in a right-wing conspiracy related to child pornography and the 2016 presidential campaign.

“Personally, I am happy not to have those kinds of cases,” Jackson said,” but they are randomly assigned in our district, so you cannot avoid it. And if you were too shy to proceed in these arenas, then you really can't sit [on the bench] in the district.”

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