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Ketanji Jackson's background similar to other justices?


Ketanji Brown Jackson is both similar to and different from the justices she would be joining — and not only because of her race and gender.The poor and powerless

By David Leonhardt, NY Times


There have been three main career paths to becoming a federal judge in recent decades: defending corporate clients, serving as a prosecutor or working in politics. Many judges have followed more than one of the paths.


The Supreme Court reflects this pattern. Seven current justices worked as corporate lawyers at some point (Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, John Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas). Seven worked either in the White House or in a cabinet department (Gorsuch, Kagan, Kavanaugh, Roberts, Thomas, Samuel Alito and Stephen Breyer). Five worked as prosecutors (Alito, Breyer, Kavanaugh, Sotomayor and Thomas).


Ketanji Brown Jackson, whose confirmation hearings began yesterday, fits the pattern, too. She spent seven years as a corporate lawyer, in Boston and Washington, including a year at the same boutique firm where Barrett once worked and Kavanaugh spent a summer.


But Jackson has also held a job that makes her distinct from any current justice — and that job is shaping her confirmation hearings.


She spent two and a half years as a federal public defender in Washington, representing defendants who could not afford to hire a private lawyer. In that role, unlike many other legal jobs, she could not choose whom she did and did not represent.


Her time as a public defender means that she would become the only current justice who has spent a substantial amount of time defending poor people. It also seems to be consistent with her judicial philosophy. At other points in her career, Jackson wrote articles about unfairness in the justice system and served on the federal Sentencing Commission, which took steps to reduce mass incarceration.


“Professional experience isn’t necessarily destiny,” Irin Carmon of New York magazine notes. But previous experience probably does influence a judge’s outlook, Carmon explains, and the federal judiciary is now heavily weighted toward judges with backgrounds representing the rich and powerful.



Ketanji Brown Jackson in her Washington office.Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Jackson’s background, even with her seven years in corporate law, is a bit different. It is both more middle class and more varied.


She would be the first Black woman to serve as a justice and only the third Black person, after Thomas and Thurgood Marshall. Her family includes people who have worked in law enforcement (a police chief, an undercover officer and a sex-crime investigator) and somebody who spent years in prison (an uncle who received a life sentence in 1989 on cocaine charges).


Her parents worked as public-school teachers and administrators, and Jackson graduated from a public high school in the Miami area (the same one that Jeff Bezos attended). If she is confirmed, she would become only the third public high school graduate on the new court, along with Alito and Kagan. “Every other member of the court is a graduate of a Catholic high school,” The Times’s Linda Greenhouse has written. All the justices — as well as Jackson, a Harvard graduate — attended private colleges.


A subtle shift

Jackson’s presence would do little to change the court’s ideological balance. She is a Democratic appointee nominated to replace a Democratic appointee (Breyer, for whom she clerked) on a court dominated by Republican appointees. And on many of the court’s biggest cases, a justice’s partisan background predicts his or her vote. Jackson will often be writing or signing dissents, along with Kagan and Sotomayor.


Still, Jackson’s background is relevant. It has the potential to influence the court in subtle ways, and it suggests that the politics of criminal justice have shifted.


For years, presidents avoided nominating former public defenders, partly out of a fear that they would be tarred with the sins of their old clients, as my colleague Carl Hulse points out. Some Senate Republicans are trying a version of this criticism with Jackson, claiming that she is soft on crime because of her résumé. In a background paper on her, the Republican National Committee criticized her work as a public defender representing Guantánamo Bay detainees as “advocacy for these terrorists.” Similarly, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, suggested Jackson had “a special empathy for criminals.”


But President Biden’s decision to nominate her and her excellent chance of confirmation suggest that the bipartisan movement to reform the criminal justice system has shifted the debate. Biden himself briefly worked as a public defender, before running for the Senate in Delaware, and his judicial nominees have had a striking amount of professional diversity. Almost 30 percent worked as public defenders, an Associated Press analysis found.


“Public defenders are not soft on crime — they are hard on injustice,” Laura Coates, a former prosecutor, wrote for CNN. “In a country where race and bias are far too frequently elevated above fairness, public defenders are the welcome foil to balance the system.”

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