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Who is Ketanji Brown Jackson?

CBS News logo CBS News 3/20/2022 CBSNews
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When President Joe Biden introduced her as his nominee for the United States Supreme Court on February 25, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson said, "I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, will inspire future generations of Americans."

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks after President Joe Biden announced her as his nominee to the Supreme Court, Feb. 25, 2022, in Washington. / Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP © Provided by CBS News Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks after President Joe Biden announced her as his nominee to the Supreme Court, Feb. 25, 2022, in Washington. / Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

The name Ketanji Brown Jackson may be new to many Americans, but not to Antoinette Coakley, a professor at Northeastern Law; Lisa Fairfax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Nina Simmons, a corporate lawyer. The three women met the federal court judge when they were all college freshmen at Harvard.

Coakley told CBS News correspondent Erin Moriarty, "I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh, what we saw so many years ago is really coming to pass right now in this moment.' It was very clear from the first time that we met her that Ketanji was special. I remember telling her when we were in our dorm, 'You are going to be the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.'"

Back then, they called themselves "The Ladies." Inseparable roommates during college, they went on to become classmates at Harvard Law.

"It was, 'We're gonna make this together, we're going to help each other,'" said Simmons. "And Ketanji taught me that, when one wins, we all win."

Jackson's writing and her analytical skills earned her a spot as an editor on the prestigious Harvard Law Review. But her friends say she stood out for more than just academics:

"She's hilarious," said Coakley. "And that's something that people may not anticipate, because they're so blinded by her intellectual brilliance, that they don't realize she also has another side to her."

She could dazzle with a story, or a song. "She has an amazing voice," said Fairfax. "We've heard her sing, and we all know that if she had wanted to pursue that, she would have been brilliant in that space."

Nina Simmons, Lisa Fairfax and Antoinette Coakley met Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson when they were all college freshmen at Harvard.  / Credit: CBS News © Provided by CBS News Nina Simmons, Lisa Fairfax and Antoinette Coakley met Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson when they were all college freshmen at Harvard.  / Credit: CBS News

But her true passion was always the law. "She came to college knowing she wanted to be a lawyer," said Fairfax.

"And not just a lawyer, right? She wanted to be a judge?" asked Moriarty.

"Yes, she did," said Simmons. "And I was, like, 'Oh, that totally makes sense,' by the way she talks, by the way she walks."

Jackson grew up in Miami, Florida, the oldest child of two educators. Her father is also a lawyer.

"They were there for her," said Simmons. "They said, 'Why not you? You belong here. You are the one. You worked hard. You're smart. You can do this.'"

Jackson attended a predominantly white high school where she learned to think on her feet as a member of the debate team.

Stephen Rosenthal, who met her in 7th grade, was a member of that team and a close friend. He said, "She was one of the, if not the, shining star on the team. She was a standout in every way."

Moriarty asked, "You described her as 'the Simone Biles of oratory,' which brings to mind agility."

"Yeah. Simone Biles has all these gold medals around her neck. That was the way Ketanji was with debate trophies. She had more hardware, you know, than anybody else."

But the quality that her friends mention most is her ability to listen, and weigh all sides of an argument – a skill, they say, that will serve her well at confirmation hearings that begin tomorrow.

Fairfax said, "Ketanji is the ultimate preparer, and she's going to be prepared."

Jackson, like all successful women of color, is used to facing questions about her credentials. Simmons said, "Of course, she's had to have an armor. We all have. I think most people walking through this world do, but especially Black women."

Case in point: After Judge Jackson's name was announced, Tucker Carlson on his Fox News program ignored her nearly nine years on the federal bench, and instead wondered about her scores on the LSAT, the law school entrance exam. "Let us know what Ketanji Brown Jackson's LSAT score was; how did she do on the LSDAT?" he asked.

"I actually laughed when I saw that," said Coakley. "Because I said, 'Is this the best that you can do?'"

Rosenthal said, "That man has clearly never met Ketanji Brown Jackson!"

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson meets with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill, March 2, 2022. If confirmed, Jackson would be the court's first Black female justice. / Credit: Evan Vucci/AP © Provided by CBS News Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson meets with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill, March 2, 2022. If confirmed, Jackson would be the court's first Black female justice. / Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

But the 51-year-old Judge will likely be challenged about her past as a federal public defender, and her work on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. If confirmed, she'll be the second working mom on the High Court. She is married to surgeon Dr. Patrick Jackson and has two daughters.

Fairfax said, "It's not just about the people who look like her who are getting inspiration from her; it's about all of us looking and realizing what it means for what's possible."

A woman who stands just five feet one inch tall is poised to knock down one more barrier.

"It's so historic," said Fairfax, "because it's just another instance where we can say, 'This is the America that we all wanna be part of. The dream is possible.'"

     

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Story produced by Robbyn McFadden. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

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