As a public defender, Ketanji Brown Jackson helped clients others avoided

WASHINGTON — After the landmark 2004 Supreme Court ruling that Guantánamo Bay prisoners could sue to challenge their indefinite detention, the Federal Public Defender for the District of Columbia took on several such cases and charged a young lawyer in his office to manage them: Ketanji Brown Jackson.

“They involved very complex legal issues that had just been resolved and it needed someone who was incredibly brilliant and an incredibly good lawyer,” public defender AJ Kramer recalled. “We thought Ketanji was the best solution.”

Ms. Jackson, who became a federal trial judge and then an appeals court judge, is now President Biden’s nominee for the Supreme Court. But his two-and-a-half years as an assistant public defender, including his work on behalf of terrorist defendants and criminal defendants, are likely to come under particular scrutiny under the glare of his confirmation fight. future.

Lawyers who harbor ambitions to be a judge — as she clearly did, having written 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 first modern court judge with experience as a public defender.

She also had to navigate the politics of having represented unpopular clients. Upon her confirmation as a district court judge in 2012, for example, Iowa Republican Senator Charles E. Grassley challenged her about her work at Guantánamo, saying her case raised “some concerns about how you’re going to handle the terrorism cases that may come up before.” you.”

Ms. Jackson assured Mr. Grassley that she believed terrorists posed a danger to the United States and that the country was at war with them, while distancing herself from the Guantánamo cases she had worked on.

“In all of these situations, the opinions that were expressed were the opinions of my clients whom I represented,” she told him, adding, “The memoirs did not necessarily represent my personal opinions regarding the War on Terror or anything else. ”

Judge Jackson has deep roots in thinking about criminal law from many angles. One of his uncles was sentenced to life in prison for cocaine. But another was Miami’s 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 an investigator at the same federal public defender’s office where she had mostly handled calls, says Kramer.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, she wrote a graduation thesis in 1992 titled “The Hand of Oppression: Plea Bargaining Processes and the Coercion of Criminal Defendants”.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, clerking to several judges — including Judge Stephen G. Breyer, the man she would succeed — and practicing corporate law, Ms. Jackson spent several years as a attorney at the United States Sentencing Commission.

There, she later wrote, she realized that she “lacked a practical understanding of the actual workings of the federal criminal justice system, and decided that serving ‘in the trenches,’ so to speak, would be useful.” She believed the Public Defender’s Office would provide this knowledge while being “an opportunity to help those in need and promote core constitutional values.”

Mr. Kramer, who interviewed her for this work, recalled that her previous role on the Sentencing Commission had focused on a “data-driven, numbers-driven” approach to the criminal justice system.

“She clearly wanted to see how the system worked in reality, and was more interested in the advocacy side of trying to help people from very unhappy backgrounds,” he said. “And it also gave him a chance, I think, to work with human beings involved in the system.”

Judge Jackson served as an assistant public defender 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 appeared in the appeals court about 10 times.

One of his cases involved a man named Andrew J. Littlejohn III, who was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm as a felon after police found a gun hidden in a shopping cart. laundry as she searched the house where he lived with his mother. Ms Jackson appealed her conviction on a number of grounds, including that the trial judge asked potential jurors questions in a way that might have obscured the fact that some had parents who were police officers and who might be biased .

In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel agreed that the juror’s questioning had been flawed and overturned Mr Littlejohn’s conviction.

“In the particular circumstances of this case, the district court’s use of compound questions violated Littlejohn’s Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury,” Judge David S. Tatel wrote.

During her confirmation in 2021 in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, wrote to Judge Jackson asking whether she feared her time as a public defender ” leads to more violent criminals – including firearms”. criminals – to be returned to the streets? »

She responded that for the justice system to function properly, those accused of crimes must be represented by “a competent attorney to hold the government accountable for providing a fair trial and otherwise assist in the preparation of a defense against the charges.” Lawyers in the Federal Public Defender’s Office, she continued, “perform this crucial function.”

She also won an appeals court ruling overturning the conviction of a former lawyer who was found guilty of tax evasion in connection with taking a Mercedes-Benz 500SL as the mother of a drug-dealing client. had given him as a down payment. The case revolved around a complex dispute over the production of documents that the court found violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

And she won a decision securing a new conviction for a man who pleaded guilty to possessing tools to make fraudulent ID documents because the trial judge failed to follow a federal rule regarding a disputed factual issue. which affected the length of the prison sentence.

Mr. Kramer remembered her as a friendly colleague who was considerate and never complained about the heavy workload. He said they often discussed their children’s education. Ms Jackson loved the reality show ‘Survivor’, he added, and ‘was talking about the strategy of the different contestants’.

It was in this work that Mr. Kramer commissioned Ms. Jackson to assist with habeas corpus litigation for several Guantánamo detainees. And later, at a corporate law firm, Ms. Jackson also filed amicus curiae briefs on behalf of two groups supporting challenges to Bush-era detention policies, including a claim that which the government could detain a lawful permanent resident arrested on domestic soil without charges and as an enemy combatant.

During her 2021 confirmation hearing, Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, questioned her about some of that work. Judge Jackson parried, telling her she had been assigned those cases and noting that her brother had been deployed to Iraq with the military.

But in a written follow-up response, she opened up more, identifying herself as one of “many lawyers acutely aware of the threat the 9/11 attacks had posed to fundamental constitutional principles, in addition to the obvious danger for the people of the United States.”

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