Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is officially the 116th associate justice to sit on the United States Supreme Court! This is huge for so many reasons, a few more obvious than others—she’s the first Black woman, the sixth woman in general, and President Biden’s first SCOTUS appointment. Let’s take a moment to let that all sit in and applaud KBJ for shattering multiple glass ceilings. We see you, Madame Justice!
Some less apparent reasons that her appointment is monumental stem from her professional background and legal practice. Judge Jackson has been an exemplary attorney and judge, dedicating her career to criminal reform and equitable justice. Now poised to take the bench once Justice Stephen Breyer steps down, her commitments will likely echo through our legal system and society at large. There’s a new sheriff (justice) in town, and Americans will likely see needed change once she starts laying down the law.
Who is Ketanji Brown Jackson?
Judge Jackson is a two-time Harvard University graduate—magna cum laude from her undergraduate studies, and cum laude from Harvard Law School, where she was also an editor of the Harvard Law Review. When she takes the Supreme Court bench, Judge Jackson will leave her current post as a federal appellate judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a position she was appointed to by President Biden in 2021. Before appellate court, Judge Jackson was a federal district court judge. And before that, she was a public defender in Washington, D.C.
Based on previous academic and professional experience, Judge Jackson is the most qualified of the current Supreme Court justices, and one of the most qualified justices in all of American history to sit on the bench. Particularly, her legal work in criminal defense and sentence restructuring makes her even more distinct. Many SCOTUS justices were prosecutors or worked in private practice before joining the bench, but KBJ has an extensive background in supporting the rights of criminal defendants. If you watched the Congressional hearings for KBJ’s nomination, you know that her work in criminal defense was a major point of contention for some members of Congress. Because she decided cases with fair sentencing and criminal justice reform in mind, some attempted to portray her as being soft on crime.
The mother of two has presided over major federal cases in the D.C. circuit, ruling in favor of grants for teen pregnancy prevention programs, inmates’ rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, subpoenas for the Trump Administration impeachment inquiry, and rights for federal labor union officials and members.
What Do Supreme Court Justices Do?
Supreme Court justices play a really unique role in the U.S. government system because they don’t make or enforce law—they interpret law. The U.S. Supreme Court is a nine-member judicial body authorized by the Constitution. Justices are appointed by the president for a lifelong term, and vacancies are filled when a justice dies, retires, steps down, or is removed.
The Supreme Court only hears about one percent of all the cases they receive petitions for, meaning that getting cases in front of the Supreme Court is extremely difficult. The Court usually hears cases involving questions of Constitutional law that lower federal courts (district and appellate courts) have made opposing decisions about. This is a crucial SCOTUS function because uniform application of the law across lower courts is integral to making sure that unacceptable legal violations in one part of the country are unacceptable in all (or most) parts of the country. When hearing a case, the Court uses specific facts of the case, prior legal precedents, and informed readings of the law in question to determine how they should rule. Once a SCOTUS decision is handed down, it becomes the standard for how lower courts should apply the law in question moving forward.
Again, the Supreme Court is one of our most important governmental functions because it is the body that actually applies meaning to the law. It’s a big deal. That’s why it’s an even bigger deal to appoint justices to the bench who interpret law fairly and without bias. It’s beneficial for justices to have a variety of legal experience because variety breeds perspective and empathy, both of which are imperative to equitable interpretations of law. Enter: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
KBJ’s Appointment Marks a Turning Point in American Society
When former President Obama won the 2008 election, many Americans took that as a sign that our country was headed toward more progressivism. Not President Obama’s election, but KBJ’s SCOTUS appointment, is the sign for me. While the public has relatively little say in SCOTUS appointments, it’s a decision that significantly impacts all of us and represents the values most important to Americans. Having a Black woman in position to interpret the law in one of the world’s highest courts means that, from the moment she officially takes the bench, future legal interpretations can better represent communities that are often, and historically, legally disadvantaged. Some of these groups—marginalized communities, criminal defendants, and working women—might especially see themselves represented in Judge Jackson’s service on the Court:
Intentional Consideration for Marginalized Communities
The Supreme Court has been the battleground of social progress for People of Color, LGBTQ+ communities, and economically burdened communities for more than a century. With KBJ joining the Court, change is even more attainable. The intersectional perspective of a Black woman, previous public defender, and multi-jurisdictional judge has the potential to truly impact equity, fairness, and access for these groups who look to the Court as an instrument of change. While KBJ alone can’t make waves deep enough to reverse all injustices—there are eight other justices, after all—having her voice present to offer different ways of considering the law can at least get us one step closer.
Conscious Prioritization of Criminal Justice Reform
People who commit crimes should not lose their rights. I know, some crimes are so horrific that it’s easy to have the mindset that those people forfeit their rights because of their actions. However, the Constitution says that enumerable rights are afforded to all, and there are even rights specifically afforded to people who break the law.
Many criminal defendants experience legal violations that are often overlooked and accepted because they committed criminal acts, but that’s not how our legal system was intended to operate. KBJ has spent her career supporting criminal defendants and advocating for their rights. Because she was a public defender, she witnessed the ways that criminal defendants are treated and likely observed that the criminal system can unfairly and improperly penalize offenders. Our system doesn’t always get it right, and even if it did, part of getting it right includes preserving the rights we’re all entitled to, regardless of our actions, race, or socioeconomic status.
Representation for Young and Middle Age Professional Women
As women, we know the difficulties that come with climbing the ranks in our respective fields. So much of the professional world is dominated by men, and we often have to work harder to achieve similar success as our male counterparts. As a Person of Color, those challenges are exacerbated. KBJ’s story—growing up in Miami, thriving academically in the Ivy League, and showing her legal chops both in private practice and the public sector—is one that demonstrates the resilience and dedication that’s familiar to many professional women. KBJ’s appointment is a huge win for Black women, and Black women attorneys in particular, who only make up three percent of the U.S. attorney population. KBJ shows us where we can go and encourages us to push the boundaries to go even further. Many of our journeys are not easy, and it’s women like KBJ who prove that our work, efforts, and sacrifices are not made in vain. If she can do it, so can you—whatever “it” is.
Justice Jackson on the Bench
KBJ is officially a member of the Supreme Court, but she won’t begin her tenure until October when the Court starts its new term. Her poise, tenacity, and knowledge of the law were on full display during the confirmation hearings, giving us a glimpse of how she’ll likely handle future cases that come before the Court. Not only do we have the privilege of watching the first Black woman take the bench, we will also likely experience the benefits that will come from this incredible honor. When inclusion, justice, and equity win, we all win.