Law & Courts

Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Daughter of Educators, Is Biden’s Nominee for U.S. Supreme Court

By Mark Walsh — February 25, 2022 8 min read
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a U.S. Circuit Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, poses for a portrait, Friday, Feb., 18, 2022, in her office at the court in Washington.
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President Joe Biden on Friday named federal appeals court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a daughter of public school teachers who has ruled on education-related cases as a federal judge, as his pick to replace the retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It is my honor to introduce to the country the daughter of former public school teachers, a proven consensus builder, an accomplished lawyer, and a distinguished jurist on one of the nation’s most prestigious courts,” Biden said at a White House ceremony.

Jackson said, “If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed as the next associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded, will inspire future generations of Americans.”

Jackson, 51, would be the first Black woman to serve on the court if confirmed. She has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit since 2021. A former law clerk to Breyer and assistant federal public defender, she became a federal district judge in Washington in 2013, where she ruled on some routine special education cases and handled a few higher-profile school cases, over teacher layoffs, federal funding of pregnancy prevention programs in schools, and higher education rules of the U.S. Department of Education.

Like Breyer, Jackson’s father was a school district lawyer.

Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., where her parents worked as public school teachers. The family moved to Florida, where her father, Johnny Brown, enrolled in law school at the University of Miami, while her mother, Ellery Brown, continued her career in education and became the principal of a public arts magnet high school in the Miami-Dade County school district.

Jackson’s father would go on to become the legal counsel of the Miami-Dade County district. That gives Jackson some common ground with Breyer, whose own father was the lawyer for the San Francisco board of education for 40 years and whose experience had a subtle influence on his outlook on education cases, the justice once told Education Week.

In a 2019 speech, Jackson said, “When people ask me how I ended up getting into the legal profession, I often tell the story of how, when I was in preschool, I would sit at the dining room table doing my ‘homework’ with my father—he had his law books all stacked up, and I had my coloring books all stacked up—and when I think back on those times, there really is no question that that my love of the law began in that formative period.”

Biden, in the White House ceremony, said Jackson’s parents “grew up with segregation, but never gave up hope that their children would enjoy the true promise of America.”

Jackson praised her parents at the White House ceremony as role models their jobs as educators and, for her father, in the law. They were watching from home in Miami, she said.

Jackson graduated in 1988 from Miami Palmetto Senior High School, where she excelled in speech and debate and was elected class president three times.

“It was my high school experience as a competitive speaker that taught me to lean in despite the obstacles—to stand firm in the face of challenges, to work hard, to be resilient, to strive for excellence, and to believe that anything is possible,” Jackson said in the 2019 speech.

The White House highlighted that when Jackson told her high school guidance counselor that she wanted to attend Harvard University, the counselor warned her that she should not set her sights “so high.”

Jackson graduated from Harvard College in 1992 and from Harvard Law School in 1996. She is still listed as a member of the university’s Board of Overseers, a panel of alumni that helps guide the institution. (The court has taken up a challenge to Harvard’s undergraduate admissions practices, and it is not clear whether Jackson, if confirmed, would recuse herself from that case.)

Jackson clerked for Breyer in the 1999-2000 term, when the high court decided two major education cases. One was Mitchell v. Helms, upholding the loan of certain educational materials, such as books and computer software and hardware, to private religious schools under a federal program. The other was Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, which struck down student-led prayers before football games at a public high school in Texas.

Jackson worked as federal public defender, a private lawyer, and a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission before President Barack Obama nominated her as a federal district judge in 2013.

She allowed a teacher’s long-running race- and age-bias case to proceed

Like most federal district judges, Jackson had to rule with some frequency on cases brought under the main federal special education law and on employment discrimination cases involving educational institutions.

In a 2020 decision, Jackson allowed race and age discrimination claims by a District of Columbia high school biology teacher laid off 11 years earlier to proceed to trial, even as she ruled that some of the plaintiff’s claims had to be dismissed. The case stemmed from a mass reduction in force carried out in 2009 by then-D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who attracted nationwide attention for her sometimes-controversial efforts to improve public schools in the nation’s capital.

“The RIF … was quite contentious,” Jackson observed in her opinion in Willis v. Gray. “This was especially so because [the District of Columbia Public Schools] had hired more than 900 teachers in the preceding months, many of whom were under the age of 40 and new to teaching (unlike many of the veteran teachers who were terminated as part of the RIF).”

The Black teacher in the case before Jackson, who was 51 at the time of his discharge, alleged violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The teacher argued that administrators were trying to drive out older, African-American teachers from the system.

“The court concludes that [the teacher’s] claim that [his principal] unlawfully decided to include him in the RIF, in particular, because of age-based and race-based discrimination can proceed,” Jackson wrote.

In a handful of special education cases to come before her, Jackson sometimes ruled for the District of Columbia school system and other times upheld private school tuition reimbursement for parents who argued that the public system had failed to provide a free, appropriate public education under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

In a 2018 case, Jackson ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services under President Donald Trump’s administration had violated federal administrative law by terminating funding to three providers of teen pregnancy prevention programs in schools or other facilities without explanation and two years short of the programs’ initial federal grants.

“Because HHS terminated plaintiffs’ grant funding within the meaning of the HHS regulations without any explanation and in contravention of its own regulations, HHS’s action easily qualifies as an arbitrary and capricious act under the [Administrative Procedure Act],” Jackson wrote in Policy and Research LLC v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Jackson helped students learn about their constitutional rights.

In another context, Jackson participated in arguments over two landmark Supreme Court education cases. But these were in moot court rearguments in front of high school students of two key cases that addressed student rights involving free expression and unreasonable searches and seizures.

Jackson served with two other federal judges for the mock rearguments of Tinker v. Des Moines Community Independent School District, the 1969 decision about student First Amendment free speech rights, and New Jersey v. T.L.O., the 1985 decision that gave school administrators greater leeway than the police to search students for contraband on school grounds.

The mock arguments were conducted in 2017 and 2019, respectively, for high school students in Washington and were organized by the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit.

In the Tinker mock argument, Jackson asked tough questions of both sides as young people argued the landmark case, in which the court upheld students who had worn black armbands in school to protest the Vietnam War.

Jackson asked whether kindergarteners would have the same right of expression in school as high school students. And to the “lawyer” arguing in defense of the Des Moines school district’s suspension of armband-wearing students, Jackson said, “Aren’t the same debates about the Vietnam War happening across the country? Is it your position that if there is a controversy about an issue across the country, students no longer have First Amendment rights to express their views about that issue?”

When the panel of judges ruled for the students, just as the Supreme Court had in 1969, Jackson played the role of dissenter, reading portions of Justice Hugo L. Black’s angry dissent in the Tinker case. But it seemed clear from a video of the event posted by the Historical Society that Jackson did not share that dissenting view.

To a student in the audience who questioned school administrators’ reasons for restricting student speech, Jackson said, “I think you are questioning the school officials’ justifications. ‘Why would you have this rule’ [against armbands], I think you’re saying, if you have this rule, you are encouraging more disruption than letting the students do what they want. I think that is a very fair point.”

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