As President Biden considered a handful of Black women for the Supreme Court, two things drew him to U.S. Circuit Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, according to those familiar with his decision making process. Jackson was molded by her predecessor, the retiring Justice Stephen Breyer; and, like Biden, she came with a rounded resume bolstered by her work as a public defender.
Those traits ultimately convinced the president to nominate Jackson on Friday, making her the first Black female Supreme Court nominee in the nation’s history. It could soon result in her taking a seat on that bench. One person close to the White House said that prep for hearings will start this weekend and Hill visits will begin next week. Though Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to hold a confirmation vote by Easter, those close to the White House have also noted that it took just 27 days to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Court from the time of her nomination.
Getting to this point was not quite as hasty, according to interviews with more than a dozen Biden confidants, White House officials, advocates and people close to the aspiring court nominees. While Biden’s deliberations began in earnest over the last month, the president and White House officials long ago began laying the groundwork that led them to Jackson. Biden started reviewing resumes for potential Supreme Court picks shortly after entering the Oval Office. After Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement last month, the president quickly began seeking the advice of lawmakers, legal scholars, civil rights leaders and judicial activists.
For Biden, a former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee who spent much of his career shaping and scrutinizing the judicial system, choosing a Supreme Court nominee is arguably one of the most, if not the most, important duties of his presidency.
"It's one of the reasons he ran. He had to list a bunch of reasons why he ran and one of them was in order to get the right people on the Supreme Court,” said former Sen. Ted Kaufman, (D-Del.), Biden’s longtime Senate chief of staff who ran the president’s transition in 2020. “He's been dealing with this for like almost 50 years."
Introducing Jackson on Friday from the White House’s Cross Hall, Biden pointed to her work for Breyer and special relationship with the retiring justice as well as her experience as a public defender — a first for the high court if she’s confirmed.
“It spoke to him in an important way,” retired Harvard University law professor Laurence Tribe said of Jackson’s public defender years. “He understood in a way that a president who had not himself been a public defender might not have been able to understand just what that meant and why it gave her a distinctive perspective.”
Throughout his Senate career and during his 2020 presidential run, Biden often boasted of his time as a public defender in Delaware, a brief stint early in his career in the late 1960s. Tribe, a constitutional law expert in close touch with Biden and advisers throughout the selection process, said Biden “thought he learned a great deal” from that time in his life, “about the conditions of life on the street, about the way ordinary people get caught up in criminal activity, and he certainly found it put him in a better position to be compassionate for people on all sides of every issue.”
Tribe said he communicated to the White House early in the process that he favored Jackson, whose opinions he studied along with those of the other prospective Supreme Court nominees. He mentioned her “analytical brilliance” as well as her experience on the sentencing commission, district court and, for the last eight months, on the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. Tribe also underscored her empathy, another trait closely associated with Biden himself. “She’s very good at understanding where other people are coming from,” he said.
Biden’s sitdown with Jackson came on Feb. 14. A person familiar with the process said that another finalist — California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger — flew in from California for an interview last week.
Biden informed Jackson on Thursday evening that she was his pick. According to a person familiar with the process, the White House was still asking at least one other contender for information through Tuesday, before going dark. The White House was determined to meet the timeline they’d set to pick a nominee by the end of the month. They also were invested in trying to move more quickly than past Democratic presidents.
But they were hemmed in by other political realities. A 50-50 Senate made a typically precarious process even more dicey; a war in Ukraine drew the president’s attention elsewhere. Ultimately, the president took a few more days (29 total) from Breyer’s retirement to the nomination of a replacement than former President Barack Obama did to put forward Justice Sonia Sotomayor for retired Justice David Souter’s seat.
On Friday morning, Biden spoke with Democratic leaders on the Hill, including Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who was instrumental in reviving Biden’s listless 2020 campaign and who, two years ago, convinced him to make his pledge to naming a Black woman.
Clyburn and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham had made a repeated and vocal push for Biden to pick Judge J. Michelle Childs, who serves on a federal district court in the Palmetto state. The public lobbying, however, had mixed results. While it elevated Childs as a potential Supreme Court nominee — far more so than she would have been otherwise — it also irked some White House officials and others close to the White House.
With just weeks to go before the end-of-February deadline was hit, there was a sense inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. that if Biden were to select Childs, it would be seen as acting for political reasons — a nod to Clyburn for being an early benefactor in his state, and because Graham held out the prospect of a broader bipartisan vote in the Senate.
Officials were heartened by Clyburn’s comments to the Washington Post last week that he didn’t view his support as an ultimatum, seeing it as an implicit off ramp for the South Carolina Democrat to back Jackson. By last weekend, the reality was setting in further, with several people close to Clyburn indicating they didn’t think Childs would be Biden’s choice.
Despite the public pressure campaign, the White House kept a tight lid on the selection process, with officials telling Jackson she had been chosen before telling Childs and Kruger that they were not the nominee. Biden appeared to relish the announcement on Friday, joking that he’s “presided over more Supreme Court nominations than almost anyone living today.”
“He loved every minute of this because he loves constitutional law and making this choice was exciting for him,” Tribe said of Biden.
As a senator, Biden spent “hundreds of hours” preparing for confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees, he said in a 1991 speech before the Detroit College of Law. In those remarks, he described the justices appointed to the high court as the “most important” people “affecting the lives in ways more significant and long laying than any president or any Congress has or will.”
On Friday, Biden argued he’s found a nominee “worthy of Justice Breyer’s excellence and decency.”
“Not only did she learn about being a judge from Justice Breyer himself, she saw the great rigor through which Justice Breyer approached his work,” Biden said. “She learned from his willingness to work with colleagues with different viewpoints. Now years later, she steps up to fill Justice Breyer’s place in the court with a uniquely accomplished and wide ranging background.”
Prior to making his decision, Biden and his staff engaged a wide audience of outside voices. He and his staff also spoke with Republican senators, cautiously hopeful that they might win a few of their votes for final confirmation.
The sales job continued Friday as Biden highlighted Jackson’s unique resume as he introduced her at the White House. After Justice Breyer, Jackson, if confirmed, would be the only member of the high court to have previously served on the United States Sentencing Commission. Next to Justice Sotomayor, Jackson would be the only other justice on the court with experience as a trial judge. If confirmed, Jackson would become the second judge — after Thurgood Marshall — ever to sit on the court to have criminal defense experience and the first public defender.
“She brings a life experience that we've not had in the court often, and someone who does not look through the lens of a prosecutor but through the lens of one whose defended defendants,” said Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network. “As we deal with trying to have a balanced, fair criminal justice system, her presence is very appealing to me.”
During the deliberation process, Sharpton told Biden that he wasn’t looking for an ideologue but warned Biden that “somebody that’s just Black is not who he needs. He needs someone that’s sensitive [and understands] civil liberties and civil rights.
Biden, Sharpton recalled, told him: “I got it.”
Sam Stein, Josh Gerstein and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.