For the first time in our nation’s history, an attorney who once practiced law as a public defender will serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed by the Senate and will take her seat this summer when Justice Stephen Breyer steps down. She will be the first former criminal defense lawyer since Justice Thurgood Marshall who served on the bench more than 30 years ago.
Not only will she be the first black female to serve on the high court, but she will also be the first lawyer to have who have represented criminal defendants in a court of law as a public defender.
There have been many prosecutors in the supreme court. We currently have two: Samuel Alito, who served as a US attorney for the District of New Jersey, and Sonya Sotomayor, who practiced as an assistant prosecutor in New York City.
Many of the more than 110 former and current justices have previously worked in the Department of Justice, the appellate courts, and in private practice.
Soon, a court justice will bring the life experience of someone who worked with poor people, their families, and the communities in which criminal defendants lived and worked on a daily basis.
Why is that important you may ask of this former Philadelphia public defender?
There is a lack of professional diversity on the bench. Courts disproportionately reflect the viewpoints of the most powerful institutions and individuals in our country. For instance, the job of the prosecutor often depends on maintaining good relationships with the police. which means they bring what I call a “constituents” experience with them.
They have to regulate law enforcement and hold police accountable for misconduct, including the near impossibility of suing police and prosecutors for civil rights violations under what is nothing more than the judge-made doctrine of “qualified immunity.”
Public defenders and civil rights attorneys, by the nature of their professions, are required to consider the impact of the law on everyday people. They try to understand the circumstances of marginalized groups and ensure that large institutions do not strip them of their most basic rights.
Public defenders spend their careers representing these everyday people, hearing what possibly may have led them to engage in criminal behavior and hearing stories of some of them being falsely accused. These individuals are part of many American urban communities and deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity as all communities.
Remember what Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, while reflecting on Justice Thurgood Marshall’s impact on the court: “His was the ear of a counselor who understood the vulnerabilities of the accused and established safeguards for their protection. … At oral arguments and conference meetings, in opinions and dissents, Justice Marshall imparted not only his legal acumen but also his life experiences.”
Justice Jackson of course will be the first public defender appointed by a president who once served as a public defender, President Joe Biden.
Now, that is one way to court a more perfect union.