President Joe Biden selected Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Progressive legal groups hailed the nomination as a groundbreaking historical first, while conservatives say Jackson is a judicial activist who will substitute her own views for those of the Founding Fathers. Ketanji Brown Jackson has worked as a lawyer in private practice supporting the abortion lobby, served as a public defender, and helped lead a federal board that reduced sentences for criminals.
Who is Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, how has she ruled, and what does she believe? Here are the facts you need to know.
Ketanji Brown Jackson’s views on controversial issues
Abortion: Ketanji Brown Jackson represented NARAL Pro-Choice America, the League of Women Voters, and the Abortion Access Project of Massachusetts during her time in Boston’s Goodwin Procter law firm. In 2001, she helped write an amicus brief supporting a Massachusetts law that barred pro-life advocates from setting foot within six feet of any individual or vehicle that is within 18 feet of an abortion facility. Jackson’s record has earned her the fierce opposition of female leaders in the pro-life movement.
“We expect her to be a reliable vote for the far left and the Biden administration’s radical abortion agenda,” said March for Life president Jeanne Mancini.
“We have no doubt she will work with the most pro-abortion administration in history to enshrine abortion on demand nationwide in the law,” said Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser. “With the Court’s decision in Dobbs expected this summer, the stakes have never been higher in the fight to protect unborn children and their mothers and let the people decide this issue through their elected representatives, not unelected judges.”
Crime: Ketanji Brown Jackson served as vice chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission during the Obama administration. In April 2014, the commission propounded the “Drugs Minus Two” rule, which lowered the punishment for all drug-related crimes by two offense levels. The rule, which applied to an estimated 46,000 convicts, allowed judges to reduce convicts’ drug sentences by an average of two years and one month. “The result of the Sentencing Commission’s proposal will be to reward drug traffickers and distributors who possessed a firearm, committed a crime of violence, or had prior convictions,” wrote Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and then-Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) at the time.
Immigration: In September 2019, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a 120-page ruling (Make the Road New York v. McAleenan) that the Trump administration could not expand its use of “expedited removal”: that it could not fast-track the deportation of illegal aliens who had been in the country less than two years. Jackson ruled that the Trump administration should have considered the “potentially serious implications” its order would have on illegal aliens and not merely focus on “the perceived shiny bright spots” of the policy.
She also said the administration did not hold a public comment period on the policy, it had effectively engaged in “decision making by Ouija board or dart board, rock/paper/scissors, or even the Magic 8 Ball.” The D.C. Circuit overturned her decision. Immigration and Nationality Act Section 237 (a)(1)(B) explicitly states, “Any alien who is present in the United States in violation of this Act or any other law of the United States is deportable.”
Funding teen sex programs: When the Trump administration cut off $200 million in federal funding to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which teaches children as young as 10 to use condoms and other contraceptives without emphasizing abstinence, Judge Jackson ruled that the funding must continue. In April 2018, Judge Jackson questioned the right of the elected leaders to deny grant recipients and “suddenly say ‘too bad, so sad.’” She called the Trump administration’s argument that the government should be able to determine who receives government grants “weird” before ordering the funding be restored.
Government bureaucracy and labor unions: In 2018, President Donald Trump issued three executive orders that would reduce the power of public sector unions and make it easier to fire employees for poor performance. They also ordered employees to spend at least 75% of their time on “agency business.” Trump limited the use of “official time,” which allows government bureaucrats to use government resources to conduct union business during working hours, at taxpayers’ expense.
He also said the government would not negotiate with labor unions on issues where it was not legally required to do so. In August 2018, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson issued a 119-page decision eviscerating those orders, denying most of Trump’s actions (American Federation of Government Employees v. Trump). She admitted that, while Trump’s action did not “specifically and directly conflict with individual statutory prescriptions” (i.e., he did not violate the law), it so “diminishes the scope of bargaining” that, it seemed to Jackson, Trump’s orders are no longer “a good-faith effort.” The D.C. Court of Appeals once again overturned Jackson’s decision, ruling that Jackson lacked jurisdiction to rule on the case.
Jackson’s first appellate opinion, issued in February on behalf of a three-judge panel, compelled government agencies to negotiate working conditions with labor unions.
Judge Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., on September 14, 1970, and raised in Miami. The 51-year-old is related by marriage to former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), who introduced her during her 2012 confirmation hearings to the federal bench. She earned a bachelor’s degree in government and her law degree from Harvard. From 1999 to 2000, she clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer, whom she would replace if she is confirmed. She is married to Georgetown surgeon Patrick Jackson and has two daughters, Talia and Leila.
President Barack Obama named Jackson to the federal bench in 2012, and the Senate approved her nomination by a voice vote in March 2013. She authored more than 550 opinions, which were frequently overturned on appeal. President Obama interviewed her for the 2016 Supreme Court vacancy but settled on Merrick Garland.
President Joe Biden nominated Jackson to take Garland’s seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in March 2021. The nomination marked her as a likely Supreme Court nominee, as Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, former justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts, had all served on the D.C. circuit. The U.S. Senate confirmed Jackson to the appeals court last June 14 by a 53-44 vote. Three Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — voted to confirm Jackson. Jackson wrote her first appeals court decision last month.
On Friday, Biden kept his campaign promise to name the first black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, a pledge that proved pivotal to winning the support of Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) during the South Carolina primary. Although Clyburn preferred the more moderate J. Michelle Childs, a South Carolina native, Jackson has other “fans within the Congressional Black Caucus, the influential group of lawmakers who also has the president’s ear,” according to Politico. Jackson was also on the short list of Demand Justice, which has been called a “liberal dark money” group and is focused on packing the nation’s courts with judicial activists.
“With the intended nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, Joe Biden has made it clear that his top priority is paying back the left-wing dark money network that spent over one billion dollars to help elect him and Senate Democrats,” said Carrie Severino, the president of the Judicial Crisis Network.
Judge Jackson’s supporters point to her Ivy League education, recent bipartisan confirmation, and experience on the bench as proof she is “well qualified.” But many others question Jackson’s abilities.
“People on the right don’t think Brown Jackson is stellar intellectually,” said Curt Levey, president of the Committee for Justice. Ed Whelan, who holds the Antonin Scalia Chair in Constitutional Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said that “Jackson is not highly regarded as a judge” and has “a middling reputation. This criticism, I’ll emphasize, is on grounds of quality, not ideology.”
Republicans will have to contend with remarks from then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who called Jackson (whose husband is the twin brother of Ryan’s brother-in-law) “clearly qualified” and “an amazing person.”
Prospects of confirmation
Jackson appears to face little or no Democratic opposition inside the evenly divided Senate, even from its more centrist members. Before Jackson’s nomination, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), who calls himself “pro-life,” has said he is “anxious” to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, even with someone “more liberal than me,” provided the nominee has “a sound thought process.” Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) has also signaled her openness to voting for Jackson.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has said he plans to confirm Jackson before the Senate’s Easter break in April.
Conservatives continue to warn against the dangers of confirming Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court. “She is by all accounts a liberal judge. I think she’s the choice of the radical Left,” said former Vice President Mike Pence on Friday.
“President Biden is selecting a judicial activist for the Supreme Court,” said Kelly Shackelford of the First Liberty Institute. “Her record from the beginning of her career shows hostility to religious liberty, free speech, and other constitutional rights. The American people do not want a liberal extremist on the Supreme Court. If confirmed, Judge Jackson’s judicial activism will place the constitutional rights of all Americans in jeopardy.”