WASHINGTON — Following the landmark 2004 Supreme Court ruling that Guantanamo Bay inmates could file lawsuits against their unrestricted detention, the Federal Public Defender in the District of Columbia took on several such cases and appointed a young attorney in his office to treat them: Ketanji Brown Jackson.
“It involved very complex legal issues that were just being worked out and it took someone who was incredibly smart and an incredibly good lawyer,” recalls public defender AJ Kramer. “We thought Ketanji was the best match.”
Ms. Jackson, who later became a federal judge and then appellate judge, is now a candidate for President Biden’s Supreme Court. But her two and a half years as an assistant attorney, including her work for accused terrorists and criminal defendants, will likely receive particular attention under the glare of her impending confirmation fight.
Lawyers who harbor aspirations to become a judge — as she clearly did, after writing in her high school yearbook that a judgeship was her goal — usually serve as prosecutors who help put criminals in jail. If confirmed, Judge Jackson would be the modern court’s first judge with experience as a public defender.
She also had to navigate the politics of representing unpopular customers. For example, when Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican from Iowa, was confirmed as a district court judge in 2012, challenged her about her work in Guantánamo, saying her track record “raised some concern about the way you handle terrorism cases involving for you.”
Ms. Jackson assured Mr. Grassley that she believed that terrorists posed a danger to the United States and that the country was at war with them, while distanced herself from the Guantánamo cases she had been working on.
“In all of those situations, the views expressed were the views of my clients I represented,” she told him, adding, “The briefings didn’t necessarily represent my personal views regarding the war on terror or anything else. †
Judge Jackson has deep roots in thinking about criminal justice from multiple perspectives. One of her uncles was sentenced to life in prison on cocaine charges. But another was the Miami Police Chief, a third uncle was a sex crimes detective, and her brother worked as a police officer in Baltimore — before taking a job as a detective at the same federal attorney general’s office where she’d mostly handled appeals. said Mr Kramer.
As a Harvard student, she wrote a graduate thesis in 1992 entitled “The Hand of Oppression: Plea Bargaining Processes and the Coercion of Criminal Defendants.”
After graduating from Harvard Law School, clerking for several judges—including Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the man she would succeed—and practicing corporate law, Ms. Jackson spent several years as a lawyer for the United States Sentencing Commission.
There, she later wrote, she came to realize that she “had no practical understanding of the actual workings of the federal criminal justice system, and I decided that helping to get ‘in the trenches’, so to speak, would be helpful. ” She thought the public defender’s office would provide that knowledge while also being “an opportunity to help those in need and promote fundamental constitutional values.”
Mr. Kramer, who interviewed her for that job, recalled that her previous role on the sentencing commission had focused on a “data-driven and number-crunching” approach to the criminal justice system.
“She clearly wanted to see how the system worked in reality, and was more interested in the defense side of helping people from very unfortunate backgrounds,” he said. “And it also gave her the opportunity, I think, to work with people involved in the system.”
Judge Jackson was an assistant attorney from February 2005 to June 2007, before returning to corporate law. In a Senate questionnaire for her first judicial appointment in 2012, Judge Jackson said that as a public defender, she had argued in the appeals court about 10 times.
One of her cases involved a man named Andrew J. Littlejohn III, who was convicted of unlawfully possessing a firearm as a felon after police found a gun hidden in a laundry basket while searching the house where he and his mother lived. Ms. Jackson appealed his conviction on several grounds, including because the trial judge had questioned potential jurors in a way that could have masked whether some had relatives who were police officers and may have been biased.
In a unanimous verdict, a three-member jury agreed that the juror’s questioning was flawed and overturned the conviction of Mr. Littlejohn invalid.
“Given the specific circumstances of this case, the court’s use of compound questions violated Littlejohn’s Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury,” Judge David S. Tatel wrote.
During her 2021 confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse asked Judge Jackson in writing if she was ever concerned that her time as a public defender “would result in more violent criminals — including firearms criminals – be put back on the street?”
She replied that for the justice system to work properly, those charged with crimes must be represented by “authorized legal counsel to hold the government accountable for providing a fair trial and otherwise assisting in preparing a defense against the charges.” Federal prosecutors, she continued, “perform this crucial function.”
She also won an appeals court ruling overturning the conviction of a former attorney convicted of tax evasion in connection with the confiscation of a Mercedes-Benz 500SL that the mother of a drug-dealing client gave him as commission. The case revolved around a complex dispute over the production of papers that the court said violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
And she won a verdict that secured a new conviction for a man who pleaded guilty to possessing tools for making fraudulent identification documents because the investigating judge failed to pass a federal rule regarding a disputed factual matter affecting the trial. duration of the prison sentence.
Mr. Kramer remembered her as a friendly colleague who was attentive and never complained about the heavy workload. He said they often talked about raising their children. Ms. Jackson loved the reality TV show “Survivor,” he added, and “would talk about the strategy of the various contestants.”
It was in that position that Mr. Kramer Mrs. Jackson to assist with the habeas corpus lawsuits for several Guantánamo detainees. And later, at a corporate law firm, Ms. Jackson also filed friend-of-the-court notes on behalf of two groups supporting the challenges of Bush-era detention policies, including a claim that the government could make a lawful permanent resident. arrested on domestic soil without charge and as an enemy combatant.
At her 2021 hearing, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton challenged her on some of that work. Judge Jackson parried, told him she had been assigned those cases and noted that her brother had been sent to Iraq with the military.
But in a follow-up written response, she opened up more, portraying herself as one of “many lawyers who were well aware of the threat the 9/11 attacks had posed to fundamental constitutional principles, in addition to the obvious danger to the people of the United States.”