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Biden introduces Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as Supreme Court nominee

Jackson, a federal appeals court judge in Washington, would be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Friday that he will nominate Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to succeed Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court.

“For too long our government, our courts, haven’t looked like America,” Biden said in an event at the White House. “I believe it’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation.”

If confirmed, Jackson would become the first Black woman to serve on the court. At 51, she would also be the second-youngest justice on the current court (Justice Amy Coney Barrett turned 50 in January) and the first justice since Thurgood Marshall with significant experience as a defense lawyer.

As the successor to Breyer, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, Jackson would not change the court’s current 6-to-3 conservative supermajority.

Jackson was nominated to her appeals court position just eight months ago and was confirmed in a 53-44 vote with the support of all Democrats and three Republican senators. Only David Souter, appointed by President George W. Bush, came to the Supreme Court with less time on the federal appeals court — under five months in his case.

Jackson will need a simple majority in the Senate in order to secure confirmation. Although she earned some Republican votes last year, there were early indications Friday that her Supreme Court confirmation process would be more challenging.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — who along with Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted for Jackson during her previous confirmation — tweeted that Jackson’s nomination “means the radical Left has won President Biden over yet again.”

Graham had been encouraging Biden to nominate J. Michelle Childs, a U.S. District Court judge in South Carolina. Childs, who was also the favorite of Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a close ally of Biden, came under scrutiny from some progressives and union leaders for her time working on behalf of employers against worker claims.

“I expect a respectful but interesting hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Graham continued. “The Harvard-Yale train to the Supreme Court continues to run unabated.”

Jackson graduated from both Harvard University and Harvard Law School.

Murkowski said in a statement: "I’ve been clear that previously voting to confirm an individual to a lower court does not signal how I will vote for a Supreme Court justice."

A White House official told NBC News that Jackson will start meeting with senators next week.

Before her current post, Jackson served eight years as a federal trial judge in Washington. At her confirmation hearing for that position, she received an endorsement from former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is related by marriage. (Her husband’s twin brother is the married to the sister of Ryan’s wife.)

“Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, for her integrity, is unequivocal. She is an amazing person,” Ryan said.

Born in Washington, Jackson grew up in Miami, where her mother was a school administrator and her father was a lawyer for the Miami-Dade school board.

In brief remarks at the White House Friday, Jackson emphasized her upbringing in Miami and spoke about being inspired by her father's decision to leave his job as a public high school history teacher and go to law school. Jackson said some of her earliest memories were sitting at the kitchen table, watching her father study his law books.

“If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed as the next associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded, will inspire future generations of Americans,” Jackson said.

One of Jackson's uncles was a Miami police chief, while another was a police detective. A third uncle was sentenced to life in prison for possessing a large amount of cocaine. President Barack Obama commuted his sentence in 2016.

Jackson was a national oratory champion and student body president in high school before attending Harvard. She was a Supreme Court law clerk for Breyer, who once described her as “great, brilliant, decent, with a mix of common sense and thoughtfulness.”

“Not only did she learn about being a judge from Justice Breyer himself, she saw the great rigor through which Stephen Breyer approached his work,” Biden said Friday. “She learned from his willingness to work with colleagues with different viewpoints — critical qualities, in my view, for any Supreme Court justice.”

The White House later tweeted a video of Biden's call to Jackson informing her that she would be his nominee.

Jackson met her husband, Patrick, at Harvard where he was a pre-med student. He’s now a surgeon at a Washington hospital. They have two daughters.

Jackson spent seven years in private practice and was also an assistant public defender in Washington, representing defendants who could not afford to hire a lawyer. One notable case involved a terrorism detainee, at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, who she said should not be held without charges or trial.

Image: Ketanji Brown Jackson
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson poses for a portrait on Feb., 18, 2022 in her office in Washington, on Feb., 18, 2022.Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Asked during her appeals court confirmation hearing about her work on that case, she said her brother was serving in the Army in Iraq at the time and that the legal briefs she submitted “did not necessarily represent my personal views with regard to the war on terror.”

Jackson also served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal judges to follow in imposing punishments in criminal cases. She helped reduce the recommended penalties for nonviolent drug offenders.

As a judge, Jackson has no record of rulings, writings or speeches on the hot-button issues of abortion, gun rights or freedom of religion. She was on the three-judge appeals court panel that rejected former President Donald Trump’s effort to block the National Archives from giving the House Jan. 6 committee hundreds of documents from his time in the White House.

In her most notable ruling as a trial judge, Jackson said former Trump White House counsel Don McGahn was required to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.

“The primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that presidents are not kings,” she said in a widely quoted line from her decision.

Her ruling was overturned, however, by the appeals court on procedural grounds.

During her appeals court confirmation hearing, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked her what role race would play in her rulings as a judge.

“I don’t think that race plays a role in the kind of judge that I have been and that I would be in the way that you asked that question,” Jackson said. She added that “race would be the kind of thing that would be inappropriate to inject in my evaluation of a case.”  

Jackson also said the diversity of her background would be an advantage. “It’s sort of like the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, that the life of the law is not logic, it’s experience,” she said.

No date has been set for a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Senate Democrats have said they want to act quickly on the nomination.

Breyer said he intends to retire after the court finishes handing down decisions from this term, in late June or early July.