Posted in Black History

Ketanji Brown Jackson, US Supreme Court Justice

Alternate titles: Ketanji Onyika Brown

Written by Aaron M. Houck

Fact-checked by The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica

Last Updated: Article History

Born: September 14, 1970 (age 52) Washington, D.C.United States Title / Office: supreme court (2022-)United States Supreme Court of the United States (2022-)United States

Ketanji Brown Jackson, née Ketanji Onyika Brown, (born September 14, 1970, Washington, D.C.), associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 2022. She was the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

Early life and education

Ketanji Onyika Brown was the first of two children of Johnny and Ellery Brown, both of whom were public school teachers at the time of her birth. The family then moved from Washington, D.C., to Miami, Florida, where her father earned a law degree from the University of Miami and became an attorney for the school board of Miami-Dade County. Her mother became a school principal.

Brown grew up in Miami, where she attended public schools. While a student at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, she served as class president and excelled in speech and debate competitions. In 1988 she enrolled at Harvard University, where she met Patrick Jackson, also a Harvard student, whom she married in 1996. In 1992 she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in government. In her senior year she wrote an honours thesis examining the role of coercion in plea bargaining.

After working for one year as a journalist and researcher at Time magazine, she entered Harvard Law School, graduating with a juris doctor (J.D.) degree in 1996. While there she served as a supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Federal clerkships and U.S. Sentencing Commission

In the years after she earned her law degree, Jackson completed three prestigious federal clerkships (typically one-year positions held by top graduates from highly regarded law schools): for Judge Patti Saris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts; for Judge Bruce Selya of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit; and, after a one-year stint as an attorney, for Justice Stephen Breyer. (Judicial clerks help judges to process cases, review briefs, conduct legal research, and draft opinions.)

Following her clerkships, Jackson alternated between jobs with private law firms and public-service positions with the federal government. She worked for the United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that studies and establishes sentencing guidelines for the federal judiciary, from 2003 to 2005 and as a federal public defender in Washington, D.C., from 2005 to 2007.

In 2010 she returned to the Sentencing Commission as a commissioner and the commission’s vice chair, an appointment (by Democratic Pres. Barack Obama) that required and received confirmation by the U.S. Senate. In that role Jackson and her fellow commissioners made retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which had reduced the disparity in sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine and crimes involving powder cocaine. The commissioners’ action made it possible for defendants who had been convicted under the previous legal regime to seek reduced sentences.

District and appellate court judgeships

On September 20, 2012, Obama nominated Jackson to the federal district court of Washington, D.C. After the Senate failed to act on the nomination, Obama renominated her in January 2013, and she was confirmed by a voice vote in March. Jackson was recognized by Supreme Court observers as a rising star and a likely candidate for elevation to a higher court, including possibly the Supreme Court.

She reportedly had been on Obama’s short list of candidates to replace Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016—a nomination that went eventually to Merrick Garland, chief judge of the D.C. Circuit, and was then ignored by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Jackson’s most high-profile decision as a district court judge came in a case involving Republican Pres. Donald Trump’s former White House counsel Don McGahn. The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives requested that the court compel McGahn’s testimony as part of the committee’s inquiry into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election (see also Donald Trump: Russia investigation). McGahn refused—following the instructions of the Trump White House, which cited executive privilege, the legal principle that the executive branch of the federal government is entitled to shield certain internal decision-making processes from outside scrutiny.

Rejecting that position, Jackson held that presidents lack the power to prohibit all staff and former staff from testifying, declaring that “the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings.”

In April 2021 Democratic Pres. Joe Biden nominated Jackson to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she would fill the vacancy left by Merrick Garland, who had left the appeals court to serve as U.S. attorney general. Jackson was confirmed by a Senate vote of 53 to 44 (three senators abstained) on June 14, 2021. Every Democratic senator (and two independent senators who caucused with the Democratic Party) voted to confirm her, along with three Republicans.

During Jackson’s time as an appeals court judge, she again confronted the issue of the Trump administration’s assertion of executive privilege. In the case Trump v. Thompson, the D.C. circuit court had considered a claim by former president Trump that executive privilege entitled him to refuse to turn over documents to the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol (see United States Capitol Attack of 2021). Jackson joined the appeals court’s opinion affirming the lower court’s decision denying Trump’s motion to block the committee’s request.

Nomination to the Supreme Court

On January 27, 2022, Justice Breyer announced that he would be retiring from the Supreme Court in the summer, after the justices ended their current term. After Breyer’s announcement, Biden reiterated his intention—first voiced as a campaign pledge—to nominate a Black woman to the Court. Jackson was one of several Black women who were regularly identified by the media as possible nominees.

Biden’s commitment to appoint a Black woman attracted criticism from conservatives and Republicans, who argued that Biden’s attempt to address historical racial and gender imbalances on the Court was equivalent to the discrimination that brought them about. Scholarly research suggests that the identity attributes of judges—including their race and gender—do predict differences in judicial decision making, but the effects are smaller than those associated with partisanship or ideology. To some, such differences in judicial outcomes suggest the importance of ensuring that judges as a whole accurately represent the population they serve.

To others, the differences suggest problematic biases based on identity (though it is hardly clear which identity group’s perspective should count as the purportedly unbiased baseline). In February 2022 Biden announced his nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to replace Breyer, praising her “uniquely accomplished and wide-ranging background.” In her remarks thanking Biden for nominating her, Jackson called attention to one of her role models: Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to be appointed a federal judge.

As is typical of Supreme Court nominees, Jackson’s confirmation was formally supported by numerous entities and individuals, including advocacy groups for minority rights and women, along with current and former attorneys general, former federal prosecutors, former law enforcement officials, former law clerks, and law professors. Former federal judges Thomas B. Griffith and J. Michael Luttig—both conservatives who had been appointed to the bench by Republican presidents—strongly supported her confirmation. The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Judiciary unanimously rated her as “well qualified” for the Supreme Court, the highest-possible category.

With the rise in partisan polarization in U.S. politics, judicial confirmation hearings have become contentious. Whereas past Supreme Court nominees had received substantial support (and numerous votes) from senators from the president’s opposing party, in the 21st century confirmation votes have increasingly split along party lines, and the confirmation hearings themselves have become more confrontational. During her hearings Jackson faced intense questioning from Republican senators who made misleading suggestions about her record as a judge, suggesting that she had imposed light sentences on criminals convicted of child pornography.

In fact, Jackson’s record was consistent with that of other federal judges, including those nominated by Republican presidents. Similarly, Republican senators implied that Jackson’s work as a public defender indicated her own personal sympathy for the views and actions of criminals, a baseless contention that obscured the constitutional right of everyone charged with a crime to receive competent legal counsel.

Despite the harsh questioning of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jackson enjoyed high levels of public support, as reported in polls. Significant majorities or pluralities of survey respondents indicated their approval of her nomination and eventual confirmation. Democrats and even some Republicans in Congress praised her calm and patient demeanour while answering questions despite frequent—and often hostile—interruptions by Republican members of the Judiciary Committee.

The political and policy implications of Jackson’s confirmation were not as significant as those of some previous nominees. The confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was 49 years old at the time of his nomination in 2017, ensured the preservation of a conservative majority on the Court; Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation in 2018 moved the Court’s median (ideological centre) in a more conservative direction; and Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s replacement of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020 established a six-to-three conservative supermajority (and moved the Court’s median farther to the political right)—all important changes to the political and strategic context of the Supreme Court that increased the likelihood of more-conservative rulings.

That is, whereas the Court’s previous conservative majority had been smaller (only five justices) and dependent on the pivotal votes of relatively moderate conservatives like Justice Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., the new conservative majority comprised six justices, five of whom were more conservative than Kennedy or Roberts. In contrast, Jackson—who was expected to be a reliably liberal vote on the Court—was simply replacing a departing liberal justice in Breyer. The conservative supermajority would be left intact, and the expected ideological balance of the Court would not be altered by Jackson’s appointment.

The fact that the Senate was split 50–50 between Democrats and Republicans meant that Vice Pres. Kamala Harris, in her capacity as president of the Senate, would have the power to cast a tie-breaking vote, if needed. Republicans therefore had little chance of blocking Jackson’s confirmation. But Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina suggested that in the future—if his party regained control of the Senate while Biden was still president—Republicans would not allow a liberal nominee like Jackson to be confirmed.

Ultimately, Jackson won confirmation by a 53–47 Senate vote on April 7, 2022. Every Democratic senator, along with three Republican senators, voted in her favour. Soon after Breyer’s retirement became effective on June 30, 2022, Jackson was sworn in as his replacement.

Jackson and her husband, who became a surgeon, have two daughters.


Versatile Christian Blogger (Spiritual, Black History, Music, Nature, Miscellaneous). Wife of Minister F. D. Woods, mother of 3 young adults, grandmother of two granddaughters, one grandson. Lord willing, retiring on December 30, 2023, after 37 years on the job.