Who is Ketanji Brown Jackson? A likely Biden short-lister for Supreme Court

Sahil Kapur
Ketanji Brown Jackson, nominated to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on pending judicial nominations on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 28, 2021.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

WASHINGTON — U.S. Circuit Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is expected by numerous progressives to shoot to the top of the short list of Supreme Court nominees after the impending retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer.

As a presidential candidate in 2020, Biden promised to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court for the first time in U.S. history. Jackson is seen in Democratic circles as a short-lister — if not a front-runner — for the nomination.

Biden has already given Jackson a vote of confidence. Last year, he elevated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is considered one of the most important federal panels and has been a regular feeder to the Supreme Court.

Jackson, a Harvard Law graduate, was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit in June by a vote of 53-44, with the support of all 50 Democrats and three Republicans: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

NBC News reported on Wednesday that Breyer intends to retire at the end of the term. The Supreme Court did not immediately announce his plans.

Democrats need only 50 Senate votes to confirm a new justice, and the recent record of party unity in favor of Jackson could work in her favor when the White House considers its options. She was already seen as a future Supreme Court prospect when the Senate voted on her nomination in June, and Republicans were unable to generate enough controversy to sink her nomination.

Jackson checks a number of boxes important to the Democratic Party and progressive movement. At 51, she's young enough to hold the seat for decades. She has a background as a public defender and worked on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Her labor-friendly rulings as a judge have drawn praise.

She has also clerked on the Supreme Court, including for Breyer.

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In March 2021, Brian Fallon, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide and executive director of the courts-focused group Demand Justice, said of Jackson: "I'd expect her to be the lead candidate for a Supreme Court vacancy in the event that Justice Breyer retires."

In a coincidental twist, Jackson is also related by marriage to former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. Her husband's twin brother married Ryan's sister.

In the coming weeks, other names will also be floated.

Another prospect is U.S. District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2010 and is reportedly backed by House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., a prominent Biden ally.

A third is Leondra Kruger, an associate justice at the California Supreme Court and former principal deputy U.S. solicitor general during the Obama administration.