Law and Politics People and Community

Supreme Court nominee has a Hurricane connection

Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden’s nominee for the High Court, was inspired by her father, Johnny Brown, a University of Miami School of Law alumnus.
Ketanji Brown Jackson
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a U.S. Circuit Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, photographed on Friday, Feb. 18. Photo: The Associated Press

Hours before the first rays of the early-morning sun pierced the sky, Johnny Brown would already be awake inside his University of Miami on-campus apartment, helping his 4-year-old daughter, Ketanji, get ready for school. 

He would make the 40-minute drive to Miami’s Brownsville neighborhood, dropping her off at kindergarten, then head back to the University’s Coral Gables Campus for the start of classes at the School of Law. 

“I did that every day because I knew it would help make a difference in Ketanji’s life. But we never deliberately set out and said we wanted to instill in her certain life lessons. We led by example,” Brown, who graduated from Miami Law in 1977, said of the way he and his wife, Ellery, raised their daughter. “We always tried to put her in the best educational environments that we could find, and then let her make the necessary adjustments and decisions from that.”

Last Friday, during a White House event filled with symbolism, the Browns watched on national television as President Joe Biden nominated their now 51-year-old daughter, federal appellate Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, to the U.S. Supreme Court, delivering on a campaign promise he made two years ago to the day to nominate a Black woman to the nation’s highest court.

“For too long, our government, our courts haven’t looked like America. And I believe it’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation with a nominee of extraordinary qualifications, and that we inspire all young people to believe that they can one day serve their country at the highest level,” said Biden, as Kamala Harris, the first woman, the first Black American, and the first South Asian American to be elected vice president, looked on.

Like most of the nation, Brown and his wife didn’t formerly learn of their daughter’s nomination until Biden stepped to the podium in the White House’s Cross Hall on Friday to make the announcement.

“Ketanji was told that she wasn’t to tell anyone, so she obeyed the rules. But, of course, we suspected it all along,” Brown said during an exclusive interview with News@TheU. 

Jackson spoke with her parents shortly after the nomination, shedding tears of joy. “We told her that she made it, that we loved her,” Brown said. 

He recalled his days at the University of Miami’s School of Law and how he, himself, helped blaze new trails as one of the first Black people to attend the school.

Brown also reflected on how Jackson, as a little girl, would sit next to him at the kitchen table in their on-campus apartment, doodling with her crayons as he studied torts, contracts, and constitutional law in his textbooks.

Those moments helped ignite her passion for the legal profession. 

“It was my father who started me on this path,” Jackson said at Friday’s announcement. “When I was a child, as the president mentioned, my father made the fateful decision to transition from his job as a public high school history teacher and go to law school. Some of my earliest memories are of him sitting at the kitchen table, reading his law books. I watched him study, and he became my first professional role model.”

Jackson had been considered a front-runner for the position ever since associate justice Stephen Breyer, for whom she clerked in 1999, announced his retirement in January. Now begins the confirmation process to install a Black woman on the Supreme Court for the first time in U.S. history.

“I hope the Senate process is as smooth as it was for her previous confirmations,” said Zanita Fenton, a professor of law at the School of Law, who, like Jackson, is a Harvard Law graduate. “While partisan politics have rarely been more divisive, a nominee with such stellar qualifications should be treated with the respect she has earned in her career.” 

Born in Washington, D.C., Jackson grew up in Miami, attending Palmetto Senior High School before earning undergraduate and law degrees at Harvard. She currently sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. 

During her confirmation hearing in 2021 for the appellate court, she spoke about her family’s background in public service, noting that her father served as the attorney for the Miami-Dade County School Board, that her mother was principal at New World School of the Arts in Miami, and that her brother was a police officer and served in the military. 

If confirmed, she will also make history in another regard: becoming the first former federal public defender on the Supreme Court and the first justice since Thurgood Marshall with extensive criminal defense experience. 

But just how will Jackson’s professional experience and lived experience as a Black woman in the U.S. shape how she approaches cases before the Supreme Court? 

“I, as the founders did, believe a range of experience best serves the composition of the court and ultimately the development and foundations for appropriate jurisprudence,” Fenton said. “We are still a long way from representing the full American population; the addition of a Black woman jurist, experienced as a courtroom attorney, can only serve to benefit the court and the nation.” 

Claire Oueslati-Porter, senior lecturer and director of gender and sexuality studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, said Jackson’s “experiences as a public defender will be of particular importance in shaping her perspective as an associate justice on the Supreme Court. That she has a family background with an emphasis on education and law will work for the benefit of people.” 

Indeed, Jackson will bring a unique perspective to the court, agreed Louise K. Davidson-Schmich, professor of political science. “She would be the only current justice to have served as a public defender, not only defending people accused of crimes but poor people who have been accused and can’t afford their own attorney,” Davidson-Schmich said.. “These experiences will have certainly shaped her insights into the law and its application. She obviously would also be the only African American woman on the court as well, bringing life experiences to the bench that her colleagues won’t share.” 

Brown wants the nation to look past the fact that his daughter is Black and concentrate on her qualifications. 

“Everyone is tending to focus on that [that Jackson is Black], and that’s understandable,” he said. “But she will bring so much more—insightfulness, intelligence. She understands other people’s points of view, and she will be one of the most brilliant judges sitting on the court. Just watch.”