WASHINGTON - Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in on Thursday as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 116th justice and the first Black woman to serve on the high court.
The ceremony coincided with the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer, whom 51-year-old Jackson once worked for and is now replacing.
Jackson, joined by her family, recited two oaths required of Supreme Court justices, one administered by Breyer and the other by Chief Justice John Roberts.
Her swearing-in came after the court issued its final opinions earlier Thursday in a consequential term that included overturning Roe v. Wade's guarantee of the right to an abortion. The court also issued a blow to the fight against climate change, limiting how the nation’s main anti-air pollution law can be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Jackson has been a federal judge since 2013 and is the third Black justice, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, and the sixth woman.
She joins the current three women, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett — the first time four women will serve together on the nine-member court.
Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is pictured being sworn in on June 30, 2022. (Credit: U.S. Supreme Court)
President Joe Biden nominated Jackson in February, a month after Breyer, 83, announced he would retire at the end of the court's term, assuming his successor had been confirmed. Breyer's earlier-than-usual announcement and the condition he attached was a recognition of the Democrats' tenuous hold on the Senate in an era of hyper-partisanship, especially surrounding federal judgeships.
The Senate confirmed Jackson's nomination in early April, by a 53-47 mostly party-line vote that included support from three Republicans.
Jackson will be able to begin work immediately, but the court will have just finished the bulk of its work until the fall, apart from emergency appeals that occasionally arise. That will give her time to settle in and familiarize herself with the roughly two dozen cases the court already has agreed to hear starting in October as well as hundreds of appeals that will pile up over the summer.
A look at Ketanji Brown Jackson’s career
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed in 2021 to the D.C.-based appellate court as a U.S. Circuit Judge, a position Biden elevated her to from her previous job as a federal trial court judge. Three current justices — Thomas, Kavanaugh and Roberts — previously served on the same appeals court.
Jackson was confirmed to the appeals court by a 53-44 vote in June 2021, winning the backing of three Republicans: Graham, Collins and Murkowski.
Another interesting GOP connection: Jackson is related by marriage to former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Jackson's husband, Dr. Patrick Jackson, is the brother of William Jackson, who married Ryan’s wife’s sister, Dana.
Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Miami. She has said that her parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, chose her name to express their pride in her family’s African ancestry. They asked an aunt who was in the Peace Corps in Africa at the time to send a list of African girls’ names and they picked Ketanji Onyika, which they were told meant "lovely one."
She traces her interest in the law to when she was in preschool and her father was in law school and they would sit together at the dining room table, she with coloring books and he with law books. Her father became an attorney for the county school board and her mom was a high school principal. She has a brother who is nine years younger who served in the Army, including in Iraq, and is now a lawyer.
In high school, she was the president of her public high school class and a debate champion. Richard B. Rosenthal, a lawyer who has known her since junior high, said there was no question she would rise to the top of whatever field she chose, describing her as "destined for greatness." His older brother, Stephen F. Rosenthal, a classmate and friend from Miami who also went to college and law school with her, called her a "natural leader" and someone with "penetrating intelligence."
Jackson attended Harvard, where she studied government but also was involved in drama and musical theater and part of an improv group called On Thin Ice. At one point she was assigned actor Matt Damon as a drama class partner, she has said, acknowledging he probably wouldn’t remember her. He does not, Damon previously confirmed through a representative, but added: "That’s so cool!"
Also at Harvard, she met her husband, who is a surgeon at Georgetown University Hospital, and the couple has two daughters.
From 1999 to 2000, Jackson was a law clerk for Breyer on the Supreme Court. Deborah Pearlstein, a law clerk to Justice John Paul Stevens the same year Jackson worked for Breyer, recalled Jackson as funny, insightful and "incredibly good at her job."
"I don’t know anybody there at the time who didn’t get along with Ketanji," Pearlstein said.
Jackson has since worked for large law firms over the course of her career but also was a public defender. After she was nominated to serve on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the agency that develops federal sentencing policy, she taught herself to knit to deal with the stress of the nomination and confirmation process, she has said.
As a commissioner, she was part of a unanimous vote to allow thousands of people already in federal prison for crack-related crimes get their sentences reduced as a result of a new law.
And Jackson’s work on the Sentencing Commission paved the way for her to become a federal trial court judge, where one of the things she displayed in her office was a copy of a famous, handwritten petition to the Supreme Court from a Florida prisoner, Clarence Gideon. The Supreme Court took his case and issued a landmark decision guaranteeing a lawyer for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one.
Jackson had served as a federal trial court judge since 2013, nominated by former President Barack Obama.
Jackson is currently a member of the Judicial Conference Committee on Defender Services, as well as the Board of Overseers of Harvard University and the Council of the American Law Institute. She also currently serves on the board of Georgetown Day School and the United States Supreme Court Fellows Commission.
The Associated Press contributed. It was reported from Cincinnati.