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Parsing Jackson's 'Deep Roots' In Criminal Law

Image of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson
Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Wikicago, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

As potentially the first Supreme Court justice since Thurgood Marshall with criminal defense experience, nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson may be more consistently pro-defendant than Stephen Breyer, the justice for whom she once clerked and is designated to replace, The Wall Street Journal reports. In that story and others parsing the record of Jackson, who served eight years as a federal district judge in Washington, D.C., before being elevated last year to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, a portrait emerges of a would-be justice whose liberal record would not change the overall balance on the conservative-dominated court but whose legal and policy work would bring a different perspective to the high court.

Breyer, too, has been generally pro-defendant on the most high-profile criminal justice issues, such as capital punishment. But, when Breyer “thought there was a really good public policy benefit for giving a little more power to the police, a little more power to prosecutors, he wasn’t averse to that,” said Douglas Berman, a law professor at the Ohio State University.

Jackson worked from 2005 to 2007 in the D.C. federal public defender's office handling appeals. She also represented people detained as enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That work attracted Republicans' scrutiny last year at her confirmation hearing for the circuit court judgeship and apparently will again. After Jackson's nomination last Friday, the Republican National Committee said in a statement that she has "a record that includes defending terrorists."

Among her successful defense work, she won an appeals court ruling in 2007 vacating a client's conviction of unlawful possession of a handgun. The court sided with her argument that the trial judge improperly screened for juror bias during conducted jury selection.

Other criminal-justice entries on her resume include a stint at the prominent D.C. white-collar defense firm Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin and four years on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the Washington Post reports in a lengthy profile of Jackson. Her time on the commission included a review of whether to retroactively reduce sentencing guidelines for people convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Jackson argued that the change was long overdue because the disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences "cast a long and persistent shadow" on criminal and racial justice.

The Post quoted her from a 2017 interview saying, "As a judge, I'm certainly no scholar." Rather, she portrays herself as a problem solver who brings to the bench a practical approach stemming from her devotion to the law, her roots in Miami’s Black community, and her experience as a performer in theater and debate.

"Judge Jackson has deep roots in thinking about criminal law from multiple perspectives," the New York Times summarized. "One of her uncles was sentenced to life in prison on cocaine charges. But another was Miami’s chief of police, a third uncle was a sex crimes detective, and her brother worked as a police officer in Baltimore."


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