Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson Will Bring Moral Clarity to SCOTUS | Opinion

There is no question that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, currently of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, is a brilliant choice for the Supreme Court. She is highly credentialed, possesses an extraordinary legal mind and has been confirmed three times already on bipartisan votes in the Senate.

D.C. insiders state confidently that she will be confirmed. But what is often missing in the traditional horse-race political coverage of this nomination is something I find far more compelling: when Judge Jackson is confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, she will bring a radiant moral clarity to the Court that will place her firmly within the tradition of icons like Justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

As a longtime civil rights advocate, I am grateful that Judge Jackson will bring a particular range of experiences and perspectives that have not previously been represented in the justices' chambers. Some people like to pretend that judging is a cold science of applying logic to the law, a simple calling of balls and strikes. But judging always draws on lived experience and historical context, as demonstrated by Justices Marshall and Ginsburg.

Marshall's moral clarity about the essential wrongness of racial discrimination changed the nation. As an advocate, he challenged the constitutionality of segregation and he defended Black people whose lives were threatened by the injustice in the justice system. On the Court, he dissented more than 150 times when his fellow justices refused to hear death penalty appeals.

Ginsburg brought the same kind of fierce moral clarity to her advocacy for the full equality of women. As a justice, she passionately pointed out the flaws and deceptions of the Court's increasingly far right majority. When the Court weakened protections against discrimination in the workplace, she told Congress it was up to them to fix it—and they did.

Judge Jackson's life in public service is evidence that she is guided by a moral compass that points toward the truth, toward the dignity of all people and toward the Constitution's promise of justice and equality for all.

She will be the first Supreme Court justice ever to have served as a public defender, and the first since Marshall to have experience as a criminal defense lawyer. She has personal experience in how the justice system treats the powerless as well as the powerful.

She used that experience to make the system more just when she served as vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Black lives, families and communities were being devastated by laws that punished crack cocaine much more harshly than powder cocaine. She worked to end that unfair treatment and its brutal human toll.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, March 22, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Jackson's human perspective and moral clarity have also shone through her work as a federal judge. She ruled in a case brought by a deaf man against the District of Columbia over his treatment in a D.C. jail. The man said he was denied a sign-language interpreter and could not understand what officials told him, even when he was placed in solitary confinement after being attacked by another prisoner. He could not participate in mental health or substance abuse programs. When his partner and mother came to visit him, officials handcuffed him, making it impossible for him to sign with them.

Judge Jackson recognized that this treatment violated the man's legal rights as well as his humanity. She held officials accountable for the harm caused by their indifference and neglect.

As a standout graduate from Harvard and Harvard Law School, Jackson could easily have chosen a career focused on tending to the wealthy and powerful, the kind of career that can bring one both wealth and power.

Instead, early in her career, she chose to represent people facing a time of intense vulnerability without the financial resources to hire powerful attorneys. That gives her a perspective on the justice system that no other justice brings to the bench.

Justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were both brilliant lawyers and judges. Their principles and eloquence influenced our country and culture as well as their fellow justices. And when the majority of the Court acted in ways that undermined justice, the vision in their dissents gave history, and the rest of us, a path back toward a moral center, a guidepost to reclaiming a "justice for all" Constitution.

I believe that Justice Jackson will follow in their footsteps—and that she will also forge her own path. That may cause fear and trembling among those who believe power should be reserved for those who look or think like most of the people who have served as justices over the last 200-plus years. Their lies and smears against Judge Jackson are troubling, but they will not be enough to defeat her.

Jackson will be the first Black woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice. That is a thrilling historical milestone. As the son of a Black woman and the father of a Black daughter, I am excited that they and other Black women will witness one more powerful institution open the doors of opportunity a bit wider. That kind of progress is good for all Americans.

We need Justice Jackson's experience, wisdom and moral clarity on our highest court. If U.S. senators do their jobs, we will soon be celebrating her confirmation.

Ben Jealous is president of People For the American Way.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.