After Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death in 2016 left a seat vacant on the US Supreme Court, the 11-year-old daughter of federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson drafted a letter to then-president Barack Obama recommending her mother as a replacement.
That effort proved unsuccessful, but six years later, Jackson is among the frontrunners to become the newest justice on America’s highest court, after the retirement of Stephen Breyer later this year.
If nominated and confirmed, Jackson, an appeals court judge in the District of Columbia, would be the first black woman to sit on the most powerful bench in the country, after President Joe Biden vowed to make such an appointment.
“The person I will nominate will be someone with extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity, and that person will be the first black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court,” Biden said on Thursday, adding that he intended to identify his pick by the end of February.
Other names have been raised as contenders, including Leondra Kruger, a justice on the California supreme court, and Michelle Childs, a district court judge in South Carolina.
But Jackson — who just last year was confirmed by the Senate to the DC appeals court with a bipartisan vote of 53-44 — is seen as the favourite as the White House launches a breakneck attempt to install its chosen nominee mere months ahead of midterm elections in November.
Experts warned that if Biden leaves the nomination too late, the confirmation process could become embroiled in political tussling in the run-up to the polls. Supreme Court justices are chosen by presidents but must be confirmed by a simple majority in the Senate — where Democrats have a razor-thin majority — following public hearings.
“In this polarising political world that we live in, [a recent Senate confirmation is] a big plus for her,” said Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer who worked with Jackson in the early 2000s. “She’s a known quantity . . . She’s been confirmed by the very Senate that would reopen a file that’s not that dusty.”
Laurence Tribe, professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, Jackson’s alma mater, said: “It will be challenging, to say the least, for the Republican senators who voted for her . . . to explain why suddenly they are not in favour of her elevation to the Supreme Court.”
Jackson’s interest in the law dates back to early childhood. In a 2017 speech at the University of Georgia, she recalled doing her pre-school homework across the table from her father, a lawyer, who was surrounded by piles of law books.
Her rise in the legal profession has been widely regarded as formidable. “The breadth of her legal career is impressive,” said Dick Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois and chair of the Senate judiciary committee, during Jackson’s nomination hearing for the DC appeals court.
He added that Jackson’s former role as a federal public defender would “bring that perspective and experience that is far too often missing on the bench”.
Jackson’s career has spanned roles in private practice as well as a position at the Supreme Court, as a former clerk to Breyer. In 2009, Obama tapped her to join the US sentencing commission, the judicial agency that develops federal sentencing policy.
The nomination and confirmation process for the latter role was so “nerve-racking . . . I actually taught myself to knit as a way to channel my nervous energy during that time”, Jackson said in 2017.
In 2012, Obama nominated her again, this time to be a district judge. But as the Democratic president sought re-election, the chances of getting her “dream job . . . hinge[d] on circumstances out of my control”, Jackson said, recalling that she “started [knitting] so many scarves that I could have outfitted a small army” before she was ultimately appointed.
During Jackson’s confirmation hearing in 2013, Paul Ryan, the former Republican House Speaker and brother-in-law to her husband’s identical twin, served as a character witness. “Now, our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, for her integrity, it is unequivocal,” Ryan said.
Jackson made her mark in the role in 2019 when she ordered former White House counsel Donald McGahn to testify before the House of Representatives in Donald Trump’s impeachment investigation.
“This result is unavoidable as a matter of basic constitutional law,” she wrote in her opinion. “Stated simply, the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that presidents are not kings.”
Her nomination last year to the DC circuit, one of the most prominent US appeals courts, made her a leading candidate to become the first black woman to join the Supreme Court if a vacancy arose during Biden’s presidency.
Feinberg said her competence, intelligence and collegiality — qualities critical to “build bridges with the other justices” — were among those that would make her the right pick for Breyer’s seat.
Born in Washington and raised in Miami, Florida, Jackson showed promise from her teenage years, when she became president of her high school’s student body and joined a competitive speech and debate team.
Under the mentorship of her debate coach, she “gained the self-confidence that can sometimes be quite difficult for women and minorities to develop at an early age”, Jackson said in her 2017 speech.
She has publicly raised issues of underrepresentation of women and minority groups in large law firms as well as the lack of high-ranking women to act as mentors for younger associates.
As a black woman who has said that she was “fairly certain” her ancestors descended from slaves, Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court would make history.
In 2017, she recalled the importance of the female role models who came before her, “whose lives and struggles inspire me and thousands of other working women to keep putting one foot in front of the other every day”.
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