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How Ketanji Brown Jackson could shape the Supreme Court

February 28, 2022, 2:10 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! The crisis in Ukraine continues, Kimberly-Clark acquires Thinx, and Ketanji Brown Jackson would bring a long-overdue perspective to the Supreme Court. Have a meaningful Monday.

– On the bench. After a month of anticipation, President Joe Biden announced his Supreme Court nominee to succeed retiring Justice Stephen Breyer on Friday: Ketanji Brown Jackson, a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Jackson has been at the top of Biden’s rumored shortlist since he made a 2020 campaign promise to put the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. If confirmed, she would indeed be the first Black woman, sixth woman, and third Black justice to serve on the nation’s highest court. Her confirmation would also put four women on the bench—with Jackson alongside Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Amy Coney Barrett—for the first time.

It’s a significant milestone for the legal profession and for the U.S. “I’ve surprised myself with the emotion and joy I’ve felt about this,” National Women’s Law Center president and CEO Fatima Goss Graves told me on Friday, shortly after Biden’s announcement. “I’ve been thinking about all the Black women attorneys over the generations whose shoulders we stand on. For the next generation, this means there will be no place in the law or beyond where they won’t be able to see themselves. They will see the Supreme Court as a place that’s possible for them.” (For another moving response to the news, watch the White House’s video of Jackson answering Biden’s phone call to learn of her nomination.)

The 51-year-old’s professional and personal life experience gives us clues about what to expect from her on the bench. She worked as a federal public defender, a first for a Supreme Court justice’s resume (the last justice to have experience representing criminal defendants was Justice Thurgood Marshall.) She clerked for Breyer, who she’s nominated to succeed. She served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, deciding sentencing guidelines for the federal courts (with a focus on reducing racial disparities in such sentences for drug crimes), which Goss Graves says suggests a “practical approach to the law.” Her father put himself through night school to become an attorney, sparking Jackson’s early interest in law.

Jackson’s classmates and friends speak highly of her character, calling her “careful,” “thoughtful,” “humble,” “charismatic” and “kind.” She sailed through three prior confirmation processes with bipartisan support, most recently last summer. Former U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan—related to Jackson by marriage—has been a vocal supporter on the other side of the aisle. In detailing his 2020 campaign promise to further diversify the Supreme Court, Biden pledged to select a candidate “with extraordinary qualifications, character, experience, and integrity.” “I paid close attention when the President said that was his criteria,” says Goss Graves. “I knew she’d be a hard person to overlook.”

While Biden has struggled to enact parts of his Build Back Better agenda, judicial confirmations are one area in which he has had remarkable success, choosing candidates who have earned confirmation and greatly increased the diversity of the federal bench. Jackson’s confirmation could continue that track record for the President—and add a long-overdue perspective to the court.

Emma Hinchliffe

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"People look at me and wonder what the hell I’m doing there. But I use it to my advantage. They let their guard down."

-Cibele Florêncio, a 24-year-old Brazilian chess champion. She's been called a real-life "Queen's Gambit" after rising to the top of competitive chess while working full-time cleaning houses. 

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