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What to Know about Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Immigration Record

Mar 21, 2022

Nominated February 25, 2022 to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Joe Biden, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has a diverse range of legal experience, issuing opinions on four immigration cases during her time on the federal bench, though outcomes for immigrants varied.

As confirmation hearings begin March 21, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will question Judge Jackson to determine her qualifications and approach to hearing and deciding legal disputes, before a vote of the full Senate to consent or decline her nomination. Confirmation to the Supreme Court only requires a simple majority of 50 votes, following Republican dissolution of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees during the Trump administration.

Ketanji Brown Jackson has served as a federal judge since 2013, before which she had a distinguished legal career spanning both government service and private law practice. During her time on the federal bench in D.C. she heard a wide range of cases due to the broader power the D.C. circuit court holds over certain types of cases, like national security, gun safety measures, and election law. As part of this wide range of cases, Jackson issued four rulings related to immigration during her time on the federal bench.

Of the three candidates Biden considered to fill Justice Stephen Breyer’s seat on the Supreme Court, Jackson has “the most developed record on immigration-related matters,” according to the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), who released a report on February 18 analyzing the immigration records of each announced candidate.

In Make the Road New York v. McAleenan, Jackson barred the Trump administration from expanding its expedited removal authority to allow the government to deport people who had been in the U.S. for less than two years without an immigration hearing. The government argued that the federal courts did not have the power to review the executive branch’s actions at all; Jackson found she could review the procedures if not the policies themselves. MRNY v. McAleenan was overturned on appeal, allowing the government to drastically expand its deportation powers, before the policy was reversed by the Biden administration on March 18, 2022. Judge Jackson’s original ruling indicates her careful reading of the law and commitment to the system of checks and balances between government branches.

Judge Jackson also found in favor of immigrant plaintiffs in Kiakombua v. Wolf, in which the government misstated the law when it rewrote the training manuals for screening asylum seekers, heightening the risk that the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who go through the screening interviews annually will be deported to countries where they face persecution and death. She also ordered the government to bring back two people who had been wrongly deported under the incorrect guidance so they could undergo a proper asylum screening interview, known as a credible fear interview.

On the other hand, Jackson did not find in favor of immigrant plaintiffs in Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center v. Wolf and Center for Biological Diversity v. McAleenan, which dealt with a second expansion of the expedited removals process and construction of the border wall, respectively. Though both of these rulings were disappointing for immigrant advocates, they relied on Jackson’s careful reading of the law and adherence to statutory interpretation rather than a political agenda.

Separate from the opinions she has issued, it bears noting that Jackson does not use terms such as “illegals” or “aliens” when referring to immigrants, even when authoring opinions that go against them. Her refusal to use such terms indicates her respect for the dignity and humanity of the plaintiffs in her court – an asset for any court.

Jackson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1992, after which she held two federal clerkships before going to work at a prestigious law firm in Washington, D.C., in 1998. She then clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer during the Court’s 1999-2000 term, and went on to serve two stints with the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency within the judicial branch created by Congress in response to “widespread disparity in federal sentencing.”

Following her time at the Sentencing Commission, Jackson became an assistant federal public defender in Washington, D.C., a period of her career she says was connected by “a direct line” to her later work as a trial judge.

As noted earlier, Jackson has issued four immigration-related opinions as a federal judge, though her rulings have produced mixed results for immigrants. However, Jackson’s commitment to a careful reading and application of the law, as well as her consistent acknowledgement of the humanity of immigrants through the avoidance of discriminatory language like “illegals” or “aliens” in her opinions, coupled with her diverse legal background, indicates that she is likely to be a fair and impartial Justice.

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