Ketanji Brown Jackson’s former boss defends her work as public defender against Republican attacks

EXCLUSIVE: A.J. Kramer, who assigned Brown Jackson’s appeals court cases as a public defense attorney, joins chorus defending her record in an exclusive interview with theGrio.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and her judicial record will be front and center this week in Washington, D.C. as she sits through a days-long U.S. Senate confirmation hearing process beginning Monday to determine whether she will be a part of U.S. Supreme Court history.

But while much focus has been on Brown Jackson’s potential at making history as the first Black woman Supreme Court justice, she stands to make further history if confirmed by the Senate — she will also become the first justice to have served as a federal public defender.

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson meets with Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) in Lee’s office on Capitol Hill on March 09, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

While it may not appear to be a notable “first,” Brown Jackson’s time as an assistant public defender for the federal courts could bring a societal perspective not yet seen in the Supreme Court’s historical canon of judicial opinions.

“I think it’s a very important decision that she made to really be able to uniquely understand the issues that face people who are accused of crimes,” April Frazier Camara, co-founder of the Black Public Defenders Association, told theGrio.

“Public defenders, and specifically Black public defenders, are some of the most well-equipped people within the court system to uniquely understand the perspective of the majority of people who face a criminal legal system.”

U.S. Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, who received her J.D. from American University law school, told theGrio, “Although justice is blind and we expect members of the judiciary to utilize the law as their guide, we can’t be blind to the fact that they come with their own lived experiences.” 

Rep. Stacey Plaskett
Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) questions Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner Charles Rettig as he testifies before the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee on March 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

She added, “Not many justices on the Supreme Court have the level of experiences [Brown Jackson] has as an attorney…her dealings with people from the defense side as a public defender gives her a level of insight and in ways that many of us do not have.”

For two and half years from 2005 to 2007, Brown Jackson took on appeal cases assigned to her by her supervisor A.J. Kramer. She defended a range of individuals who were accused and convicted of federal crimes.

Kramer told theGrio that he remembered Brown Jackson as being a “brilliant lawyer” and an “excellent writer.” He added, “She’s also an extremely nice person.”

Mr. Kramer said he thinks Brown Jackson, 51, could bring a “nice diversity of background” to the Supreme Court if she is confirmed. 

“The conventional background for lots of justices has either been big law firms, law professors, and at some point, prosecutors or Department of Justice attorneys,” he told theGrio. “She wanted to come work in our office, which I think shows her dedication to a fair criminal justice system.”

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson listens to arguments as local high school students observe a reenactment of a landmark Supreme court case at U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Frazier Camara, who is also CEO of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, noted that public defenders often experience firsthand the ways in which “systemic inequities” in the United States show up in the criminal justice system. 

“You can uniquely understand the important role that you play in making sure that a person’s constitutional rights to zealous advocacy is preserved, regardless of whether or not you have the resources to be able to afford counsel,” she told theGrio.

However, some Senate Republicans have criticized Judge Brown Jackson as a public defender, taking aim at her work on the behalf of defendants — from a man on death row to prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. The Republican National Committee described Brown Jackson’s public defense work as “advocacy for terrorists” that went “beyond just giving them a competent defense.”

“The soft on crime brigade is squarely in Judge Jackson’s corner. They wanted her above anyone else on the shortlist and they specifically cite her experience defending criminals and work on the sentencing commission as key qualifications,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor last week.

(L-R) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) shakes hands with Supreme Court Nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at the beginning of their meeting in McConnell’s office at the U.S. Capitol on March 2, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

As The New York Times reported, “Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have almost uniformly opposed the confirmation of public defenders” nominated by President Joe Biden, who has confirmed a record number of former public defenders to the federal bench. 

Kramer, Brown Jackson’s former boss, dismissed Republican criticisms of her work as a public defender. “We don’t pick and choose our cases. We take whatever case comes in the door. So she didn’t take any of her cases, they were assigned to her by me and the chief of our appellate unit,” he told theGrio. “It’s not like she sought out particular cases to work on…if you want the criminal justice system to work, everybody’s entitled to a defense.”

Kramer said he wondered what Republicans would say about public defenders today who’ve had to “represent a large number of people charged in the events that took place on Jan. 6, 2021” – referring to Capitol insurrectionists who some Republicans have argued were being too severely prosecuted. 

Echoing Kramer, Frazier Camara said, “This notion that you choose a client, first of all, is not accurate. What you choose to do is stand up every single day and fight for constitutional rights for every person who is accused of a crime.”

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson poses for photographs while visiting Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) in her office in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

She added, “So oftentimes it’s a misguided focus on the individual case or the allegations involved in the case…No one is equal to the worst thing that they may have ever done in their life, and everyone is deserving of representation in the system.”

Anticipated Republican opposition aside, Judge Brown Jackson is nearly certain to obtain at least 50 votes (and in that case, Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the tie-breaking vote) – guaranteeing her place in Supreme Court history as both a Black woman and public defender.

Kramer, reflecting on the rise of Brown Jackson since he last supervised her 15 years ago, told theGrio he is elated to see her take her lifetime seat on the highest court in the nation.

“[I’m] extremely happy for her, and for the fact that there would be a public defender on the bench. It’s completely well deserved,” said Kramer. “I don’t think there’s anybody more qualified than she is…I’m very proud.”

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