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Who is Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson? For starters, she clerked for Justice Breyer

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/27/2022 John Fritze, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – Long before President Joe Biden won the 2020 election, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's name was in the mix for a spot on the Supreme Court.

Now, six years later, Jackson is finally getting her chance. 

Biden announced Friday that the 51-year-old federal appeals court judge is his nominee to replace retiring Associate Justice Stephen Breyer. If confirmed, Jackson, a Harvard Law School grad, will be the first Black woman seated on the high court. 

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A former federal public defender in Washington, D.C., who clerked for Breyer during the Supreme Court's 1999-2000 term, Jackson is young enough to serve on the court for decades. And as Biden noted at the White House on Friday, Jackson has already won Senate confirmation three times during her career.

"I do know that one can only come this far by faith," said Jackson, who has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit since June. "Among my many blessings, and indeed the very first, is the fact that I was born in this great country."

Democrats praised Jackson's selection over the weekend, noting her years on the U.S. district court in Washington and her professional background. Jackson, who was raised in Miami, became the fifth active Black woman federal appeals judge out of 179 when she was confirmed.  

She faced some criticism from conservatives though she garnered three Republican votes, during her confirmation to the appeals court in June. 

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Biden repeatedly promised during his presidential campaign to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court for the first time in history if he got the chance. The pledge was praised by those seeking more diversity on the high court, but it also exposed the relatively small pool of women of color serving as appeals court judges across the nation. 

President Barack Obama nominated Jackson to serve as the vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2009, a position that required Senate confirmation. The commission retroactively reduced sentencing for crack cocaine offenses during her tenure. Obama nominated her again in 2012, this time for a seat on the district court in Washington, D.C.

Some conservatives balked at a few of her decisions. She ruled in 2019 that President Donald Trump's former White House counsel, Don McGahn, had to testify during what was then a congressional impeachment inquiry into the president's call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Trump was impeached over that interaction, in which he pressured Zelenskyy to investigate Biden, but he was acquitted in the Senate.

Trump attorneys argued the president had an "absolute immunity" from congressional subpoenas, allowing him to prevent aides' testimony. Jackson rejected the argument.

"Stated simply, the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings," she wrote. "This means they do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control."

The House Judiciary Committee ultimately reached an agreement with McGahn to testify before lawmakers before the case was heard by the appeals court. 

In another 2019 opinion, Jackson dismissed an effort by the Trump administration to speed deportations. That opinion was reversed on appeal, and the case was stayed after Biden signed an order calling for a review of many of Trump’s immigration policies. 

But neither of those cases featured prominently in her confirmation hearing for the D.C. Circuit. Instead, Republicans objected to the fact that she dodged a question from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, about whether she embraced the notion of a "living Constitution," the idea that judges may adapt their reading of the founding document to the changing times.

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Jackson sidestepped the query, saying she hadn't had to confront it on the district court.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is President Joe Biden's nominee for associate justice of the Supreme Court. © SAUL LOEB, AFP via Getty Images Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is President Joe Biden's nominee for associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Still, other conservatives told USA TODAY that while they didn't agree with Jackson's judicial philosophy, they also didn't find her to be outside of the mainstream. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska supported Jackson's confirmation to the appeals court. 

Addressing criticism that Jackson is liberal, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told Fox News Sunday: "I just find those words offensive, honestly, because what I look at is this incredibly experienced woman who came up from two parents, public school teachers, did everything she could, star of her high school debate team and is now nominated for the Supreme Court. And I think she's going to be a great judge."

Jackson is married to a surgeon and has two daughters. 

Speaking at the White House last week, Jackson called attention to an uncle who was "caught up in the drug trade" and "received a life sentence." Her uncle, Thomas Brown, received a life sentence in Florida for a nonviolent drug crime. 

Jackson noted that she also had family who served in law enforcement, including a brother and two uncles "who served decades as police officers."

"I am standing here today by the grace of God as testament to the love and support that I've received from my family," Jackson said. 

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Jackson is related by marriage to former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. Jackson's husband is the twin brother of Ryan's brother-in-law. The former Wisconsin lawmaker testified on Jackson's behalf when she was nominated to the federal district court in 2012.  

"Our politics may differ," Ryan said, "but my praise for Ketanji's intellect, for her character, and for her integrity, is unequivocal."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who is Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson? For starters, she clerked for Justice Breyer

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