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Ketanji Brown Jackson’s historic nomination puts public defender experience on center stage

While Jackson’s public defender experience has earned her praise from many, it could also be an opportunity for dispute during her confirmation hearings.

WASHINGTON (CN) — As President Joe Biden announced the historic nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Friday, attention turned to the judge’s public defender work where she earned praise from some and ire from others.  

If confirmed, Jackson would not only be the first Black woman on the high court’s bench, she would also be the first former federal public defender. 

When announcing Jackson’s nomination, Biden said he was looking for someone with “a pragmatic understanding that the law must work for the American people.” Her public defender background will do just that. 

“From my vantage point, I really see that people are always really focused on kind of the ideological issues that the court decides, but they do decide a lot of things just affect ordinary litigants, trial courts, criminal defendants, and so having someone who comes in with that experience, I think, is really striking,” Olatunde Johnson, a professor at Columbia Law School, said in a phone call. “So in addition to having a private law firm experience that she has that public defender experience is really noteworthy.” 

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren praised Jackson’s public defender background while pledging her support for a swift confirmation.  

“For too long, the federal bench has lacked judges with experience as public defenders, civil rights attorneys, legal aid lawyers, and those who’ve advocated for working people,” Warren wrote on Twitter. “Justice requires judges who represent every corner of the legal profession and reflect all Americans.” 

The hands-on experience Jackson gained as a public defender will stand in contrast to the current justices’ experience on the bench. 

“We really have such uniformity in the judiciary, which is not just mostly white, mostly male, but really mostly former prosecutors, corporate lawyers, and certainly almost nobody who's had some real hands-on experience with average people who've faced either criminal prosecution or a civil suit,” Caroline Fredrickson, a professor at Georgetown Law, said in a phone call. “So that kind of experience, I think, just being on the ground understanding how our civil justice and criminal justice system work for average people is just such an incredible change to bring to the Supreme Court.” 

Progressives also say Biden’s appointment of a public defender to the bench could signal support for criminal justice reform at the highest level. 

“We're in a moment where there has been an active movement to reform our broken criminal justice system and that stems from not just George Floyd but a lot of the other situations that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement,” Our Revolution Executive Director Joseph Geevarghese said in a phone call. “In some ways, this appointment signals the administration's commitment to pursuing criminal justice reform at the highest level, and that's, I think, incredibly unique.” 

During her 2021 confirmation hearing for the D.C. Circuit, Jackson said her public defender experience made her realize just how little some of her clients know about their own proceedings. Transferring this knowledge to her time as a trial judge, Jackson said she was cognizant of making sure defendants actually understood what was happening to them and why. 

“There is a direct line from my defender service to what I do on the bench, and I think it’s beneficial,” Jackson said. 

Like other public defenders, Jackson at times had little sway over cases she was assigned. Her defense of a Guantanamo Bay detainee garnered criticism from Republicans during her previous confirmation hearings. It’s possible these attacks could intensify as Jackson is considered for the high court. 

Texas Senator John Cornyn asked Jackson, “In your career before you were a judge, have you ever represented a terrorist at Guantánamo Bay?” 

In written responses, Jackson was repeatedly asked if her work would result in more terrorists being released back into the fight against the U.S. She was also asked if she considered resigning from these cases. When answering these questions, Jackson cited ethics rules that prevent her from publicly declaring a personal disagreement with the behavior of her client. 

Progressives say Jackson’s support of Guantanamo detainees is just an example of her standing up for vulnerable populations and that experience is important to them. 

“She has given voice to the voiceless and, look, she will have stood up for some very vulnerable populations, whether it's Guantanamo detainees, whether it's immigrants, whether it's criminal defendants, I think there is a track record that her ideological enemies will go after,” Geevarghese said. “But that being said … it's going to be especially important for progressives to stand up and make sure she gets on the court.” 

Some experts warn that attacks on Jackson’s public defender background are just searching for a point of contention. 

“No matter what her background could have been they would find some reason to be critical, but … if people bothered to read the Constitution, you’d know that people are entitled to a defense,” Fredrickson said. 

While Jackson’s experience may be put under the microscope by Republicans, Democrats do not need them to confirm her to the court. 

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