President Joe Biden’s nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Friday is an absolute home run. Jackson has all of the traditional qualifications to be an outstanding justice, plus her identity as the first African American female nominee makes her selection pathbreaking. But she also has another great virtue: She recently survived a Senate confirmation process when Biden elevated her to the appellate court last year, so it will be much harder for Republicans to cause problems in her ascension to the high court.
Jackson, 51, sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, often called the second most important in the U.S. — and the one that produced Chief Justices John Roberts and Warren Burger, as well as Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia and others. Like Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch, Jackson attended Harvard Law School. She later had three elite judicial clerkships, including one with Breyer, whose seat she would fill. She worked at two major law firms before becoming a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2013 and was the vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a position for which the Senate confirmed her by unanimous consent.
As everyone knows, Jackson would be the first African American woman in the Supreme Court’s 232-year history, which is reason enough to celebrate her nomination. But she has another attribute that should not be overlooked: She spent two years with the Public Defender Service in Washington, which means she will bring a fresh and meaningful perspective to the Supreme Court if she is confirmed.
As a public defender, Jackson represented poor people who could not afford lawyers, arguing their cases and ensuring that their constitutional rights were protected whether they were ultimately found guilty or not guilty. No sitting justice has a comparable background. Although three of the justices — Gorsuch, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor — have been prosecutors, no justice since Thurgood Marshall, who was counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, has devoted years of their career to the representation of poor and marginalized people charged with crimes, and she would be the first public defender. Former prosecutors, of course, may have insights into the problems of the criminal justice system, as Sotomayor has shown, but public defenders have uniquely served in the trenches, often fighting uphill battles on behalf of the dispossessed.
Jackson’s real-world judicial experience was further enhanced by her years of service on the U.S. District Court, where she presided over both civil and criminal trials. The Supreme Court routinely interprets the rules of evidence and trial procedure, issuing decisions that must be followed in all of the lower courts. It is not inconceivable that some of the other justices — with backgrounds only in appellate law — have seen few, if any, trials from start to finish. Jackson’s familiarity with the nuts and bolts of trial work can help keep the court grounded in reality rather than abstractions, thus making sure that its rulings can readily be implemented in practice.
But the success of Supreme Court nominations doesn’t rest solely on the qualifications of the nominees. Just look at the case of eminently qualified Merrick Garland, who held Jackson’s appellate seat when he was nominated by then-President Barack Obama in 2016, only to have then-Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuse to hold a vote. (That seat was then filled by Gorsuch after Donald Trump assumed the presidency; Garland ultimately became attorney general under Biden.)
So it was no doubt also a factor in Biden’s decision that Jackson has another key attribute: She was confirmed to her current position on the appellate court just last year, meaning that she recently went through hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee and a full background check by the FBI. Republican senators have thus had a full opportunity to raise questions about her qualifications and abilities already, making the likelihood of a last-minute controversy exceedingly unlikely.
When Jackson was confirmed, the vote of 53-44 even included the support of three Republican senators (another three did not vote), making it less likely that there will be any surprises during the debate over her Supreme Court nomination. Though the 50-50 split of the Senate means that Vice President Kamala Harris can deliver the 51st vote for Jackson even if all the Republicans are opposed, the vice president has never served as a Supreme Court nomination tie-breaker, and Democrats would prefer Jackson have at least some bipartisan support.
Of course, she isn’t the only nominee to have come from a recent lower court confirmation. When Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court by then-President George H.W. Bush in 1991, he had been confirmed to the District of Columbia Circuit just the previous year. Bush famously praised his nominee as “the best man for the job on the merits,” which caused even Thomas himself to wonder about “so extravagant a claim,” as he described it in his memoir. As Thomas explained, he later asked Bush’s White House counsel whether he really was the most qualified nominee. Yes, came the answer, because he had been recently tested in a confirmation hearing for the circuit court and had a clean FBI file on record.
Thomas’ own Supreme Court confirmation turned out to be rocky and contentious, when he was faced with a credible accusation of sexual harassment that hadn’t surfaced earlier. There is no reason to think there’s any remotely similar controversy in Jackson’s background. Though some Republicans objected to Biden’s stated commitment to name a Black woman to the court, derailing her nomination on this account seems an unlikely hill for them to try to climb. On any metric, Jackson is supremely qualified for the Supreme Court and more than ready for a return appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
There have been only 115 justices since the Supreme Court was established in 1789, of whom all but seven have been white men. Jackson is the right person to break the glass ceiling, bringing with her a wealth of unique experience that will benefit the Supreme Court and the country.