If newly confirmed U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is smiling when she steps onto the bench, lawyers shouldn't let their guard down. Past and present colleagues described Jackson as cheerful and easy to work with, but warned that attorneys should expect pointed questions that speak to her understanding of the law and breadth of expertise.
"Because she is a person that comes across as very friendly, people should not take that for granted. She is really deeply thinking about the issues before her," said Brian Matsui, a partner at Morrison & Foerster who worked with Jackson when she was of counsel at the firm.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Jackson, 42, to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on March 22. A member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission since 2010, Jackson is expected to keep her position on the commission, serving with two other members who are also judges – U.S. District Chief Judge Patti Saris of Massachusetts and U.S. District Chief Judge Ricardo Hinojosa of the Southern District of Texas.
Jackson was Saris' clerk in 1996. Saris, in an e-mail, said that at the time she was "so impressed with [Jackson's] writing and research abilities, I advised her to consider a career as a federal judge." Having served with Jackson on the commission, Saris said she found Jackson "is not only a creative thinker about the challenges of federal sentencing policy, but also someone who is willing to roll up her sleeves and deal with the detailed work of crafting sentencing guidelines. I am confident she will use her talents to be a great trial judge and a leader on the Bench.”
As a member of the sentencing commission, Jackson, who was unavailable for an interview, is expected to bring a unique level of expertise to criminal cases on her docket. Commission members are "constantly having hearings and thinking through and reporting on the consequences of the sentences, including mandatory minimums," said Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel at The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for sentencing policy reform.
In 2011, Haile noted that the commission issued a report calling on Congress to take a close look at the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences and address inconsistencies in sentencing practices. When Jackson hears criminal cases, Haile said, "having that perspective, I think, is important."
Jackson's confirmation means the court will have a complete bench of 15 district judges. U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth said Jackson will take on about six to seven percent of cases from the other judges' dockets. "We're delighted to be at full strength for the first time in years," he said.
Before her appointment to the sentencing commission in 2010, Jackson's practice at Morrison & Foerster focused on appellate litigation in state and federal courts and before the U.S. Supreme Court; Jackson clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer from 1999 to 2000. Matsui said that Jackson didn't have a particular area of expertise and was instead adept at moving between issues depending on the case. Jackson "doesn't get fazed by the things going on around her," he said.
"Having worked on moot courts with her, she is going to be someone who is going to ask very insightful questions that get to the heart of the case," Matsui said. "People better be prepared."
From 2005 until she joined Morrison in 2007, Jackson handled appeals as an assistant federal public defender in the District. Assistant Federal Public Defender Tony Axam, who now does appellate work, was a trial lawyer when Jackson worked in the office and said she helped him understand the differences in what it took to win at trial versus on appeal.
"As a trial attorney, the first thing you're trying do is win…you might win by law, you might win by facts, or you might win by equity in the trial court. In the appellate court, you have to win by law just about all the time," he said.
Born in D.C., Jackson graduated from Harvard Law School in 1996. Besides clerkships with Saris, Breyer and now-Senior Judge Bruce Selya of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, she worked as an associate at Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin (which merged with Baker Botts in 2001), Goodwin Procter, and The Feinberg Group (now Feinberg Rozen). From 2003 until she joined the federal public defender office in 2005, she served as an assistant special counsel to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
She'll be the second black woman to serve as a district judge on the D.C. federal bench; former Chief Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who died in 2011, was the first.
U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Jackson has "a wonderfully collegial disposition that will work well with her colleagues and work well from the bench." Norton, who is extended a similar courtesy as U.S. senators to recommend federal judge candidates to the White House, said she was impressed with Jackson's "all-star" legal career at a relatively young age.
"She has a track record at the sentencing commission and as a practicing lawyer that is very important. What she's been doing at the sentencing commission is right on point," Norton said.
Jackson was nominated in September and appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on December 12, but the Senate failed to act on her nomination before the end of its term. Obama re-nominated her in early January. She is the sixth Obama nominee confirmed to the U.S. district court in Washington.