Sean Yoes

By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
syoes@afro.com

There has never been a Black woman justice of the United States Supreme Court. Ketanji Brown Jackson, U.S. District Court Judge for Washington, D.C. may be on track to become the first. 

Late last month Jackson, 50, was nominated by President Joe Biden to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to fill the seat vacated by Merrick Garland, who resigned after he was confirmed to be U.S. Attorney General. She was first seated as a judge on the federal district court in 2013, by President Barack Obama and was on Obama’s shortlist for the Supreme Court in 2016.

Now, Jackson is widely considered to be the odds on favorite to fill the next Supreme Court vacancy, which would fulfill Biden’s campaign promise to place a Black woman on the High Court. 

Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Miami, Jackson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and cum laude from Harvard Law School. She worked for a variety of law firms and clerked for three federal judges: U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris, U.S. Court of Appeals First Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Although he has not indicated any intention of stepping down in the near future Breyer, 84, is considered the most likely to be replaced by Jackson.

In July 2009, President Obama also nominated Jackson to become vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. And during her tenure there the Sentencing Commission retroactively amended sentencing guidelines to reduce sentence parameters used to hand down draconian punishment for crack cocaine offenses.

On November 17, 1985, the word “crack” first appeared in the New York Times in a story describing the highly addictive form of cocaine that had begun to sweep across urban America with deadly ferocity. That year Jackson was attending Miami Palmetto Senior High School. A few years earlier in 1981, when Jackson was in middle school, Miami had become one of the first American cities overrun by the onslaught of crack. 

Thirty years later in 2011, Jackson spoke about the disparities in sentencing between possession of crack cocaine and possession of powder cocaine in her role as vice-chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. And the Commission also discussed the implementation of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, during a hearing on June 30, 2011.

“The crack cocaine guideline penalty reduction is not some minor adjustment designed to facilitate efficient guideline operation. But, it reflects a statutory change that is unquestionably rooted in fundamental fairness,” Jackson said in 2011. “The Commission first identified the myriad problems with a  mandatory minimum statute that penalizes crack cocaine offenders 100 times more severely, than offenders that traffic in powder cocaine in a report to Congress in 1995,” she added. “And today there is no federal sentencing provision that is more closely identified with unwarranted disparity and perceived systemic unfairness than the 100 to 1 crack-powder penalty distinction.

On November 25, 2019, Jackson from her seat in the U.S. District Court delivered a judicial blow to the 45th President of the United States, when former White House Counsel Don McGahn ignored a subpoena from the House Committee on the Judiciary. McGahn was ordered by the former president not to comply with the subpoena to appear at a hearing for the first impeachment of the 45th president based on the legal theory of executive testimonial immunity.

“With respect to senior-level presidential aides, absolute immunity from compelled congressional process simply does not exist,” Jackson wrote, rejecting the presidential assertion in a lengthy opinion. And in that ruling she utilized the phrase “presidents are not kings.”

How ironic would it be if Jackson, who more than likely will replace Garland in the U.S. Court of Appeals ultimately fills the Supreme Court seat Garland was supposed to occupy towards the end of the Obama administration. It was Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Grim Reaper who blocked Garland and strong-armed the 45th President’s pick Neil Gorsuch in February 2017.

As Mark Twain once said, “History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”

Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Senior Reporter and the author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.

 

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor