When most Americans were introduced to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in February as President Joe Biden’s nominee to fill a seat on the Supreme Court, they quickly learned that she was highly qualified. Her academic honors were indisputable, her experience as an attorney and a judge unmatched, and she was prepared to be a trailblazer for Black girls and women across the United States. On Thursday, she was confirmed as the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.
Throughout three long and sometimes-contentious days of confirmation hearings, Americans witnessed a jurist who consistently responded to complex legal questions with thoroughness and thoughtfulness, a woman who addressed repeated probing questions of her past legal decisions with poise and precision, and an attorney who demonstrated how characteristics like compassion and understanding have an undeniable role in a fair and equal justice system.
As a former Philadelphia public defender, I find these last two attributes critical and distinctive. Like me, Justice Jackson spent time as a public defender, distinguishing her from nearly all of her predecessors. And in a system increasingly dominated by former prosecutors, a former public defender’s perspective from the defense table is a valuable addition to the nation’s highest bench.
In her opening statement, Justice Jackson reflected on the words etched above the main entrance to the Supreme Court Building in Washington: “Equal Justice Under Law.” And she pledged to remain steadfast in her commitment to making those words “… a reality and not just an ideal.” This is the perspective of a public defender. Our justice system is not grounded in retribution, it is grounded in equality. Wealthy or poor, gay or straight, guilty or innocent, everyone is entitled to equal justice. That fundamental concept is enshrined in our national ethos but is sometimes overlooked.
During her hearings, some senators attempted to paint her public defense experience as a weakness rather than a strength, but nothing could be farther from the truth.
As a public defender, you don’t choose your client, or if you are going to take their case. Wisely, our federal and state constitutions guarantee those accused of crimes to legal representation. And ethically an attorney needs to offer a vigorous defense. It is a love for the law, respect for human dignity, and commitment to liberty that equips public defenders to take on this privilege.
As a public defender, whether representing someone in Philadelphia or at Guantanamo Bay, you need to practice compassion. I knew as a public defender I was often meeting my client on one of their worst days. But there is more to a client than the crime of which they are accused. Approaching each person with an eye toward their humanity and from a place of empathy and understanding for the client, their family and their community creates an environment where an attorney can offer the strongest advocacy.
While our system is based on a presumption of innocence, many times this is not the view adopted by the public or even by courtroom officials, but it must be the mindset of the defense. As a public defender you are often going head-to-head with a better-resourced prosecutor, who may have a more cordial relationship with the court. You cannot be deterred. Being a public defender takes courage, stamina, and resilience.
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Finally, American opinion of the Supreme Court has declined swiftly over the past few years – dropping 15 percentage points according to the Pew Research Center. But favorability of the nation’s highest bench has been waning for decades. More and more Americans are seeing the court as an ideological enterprise, rather than an independent interpreter of the Constitution. Justice Jackson’s work as a public defender, on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and as a judge, demonstrate her thoughtful and independent approach to the law.
Jackson’s appointment not only fulfills President Biden’s campaign promise and underscored his overall efforts to diversify the bench, but her background as a public defender and her love of the law are precisely what the Supreme Court needs right now to restore America’s faith in the court’s independence.
Joanna McClinton serves as the Pennsylvania House Democratic Leader, and represents the 191st House District, which includes portions of Philadelphia and Delaware County.