Written by Serie McDougal III & Sureshi M. Jayawardene
According to a Moroccan proverb, endurance pierces marble. With a deep well of inspiration and drive, Justice Brown Jackson drew motivation from her family to achieve and endure many of the very same barriers as other Black people and working Black women in particular. Yet she persisted. She has emerged as a national model of motivation, discipline, persistence, endurance, and success. She is in many ways the embodiment of that Moroccan proverb. But what is the practical meaning of Judge Brown Jackson for the ongoing movement to advance the African/Black world? How does her judicial methodology relate to Black people? What can we expect from a Black woman with the ability to influence the direction of an entire country?
In her confirmation hearings, when pressed for her judicial philosophy–especially at the hands of Republicans in Congress with their vile and brutal lines of questioning and overtly double standards–Justice Brown Jackson pointed to a perspective on legal analysis in favor of a particular perspective on the law. She underscored how her “judicial methodology” could be identified in how she approached judging. The tools she relies on to reach her decisions are consistent and clear in her rulings and sentencing record: focused attention on the details of the cases and claims therein; a keen analytical mind; careful reading of statutes and precedent; reference to law dictionaries when meanings are in dispute; and a deep sense of respect for procedural requirements that limit judicial authority.
Justice Brown Jackson has a record that involves a few very significant moments and rulings—for example, her focus on reducing unwarranted sentencing; the amicus brief she wrote defending a Massachusetts law against abortion protesters at clinics; her demonstrated willingness to challenge presidential power and corruption, as evidenced by her Trump-era ruling compelling President Trump’s counsel to testify; her history of siding with unions, as she did when she worked to protect federal employees from firing; and her siding with the Centers for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium early during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of these rulings, positions, and opinions from Justice Brown Jackson falls on the side of the majority of African American political attitudes, which lean pro-choice, pro-affordable/accessible housing reform, pro-sentencing reform, and pro-union (McLaughlin, 2022). Then, there is her sentencing record.
From John Punch to Thomas Brown Jr.
The legacy of freedom for Black people has involved the use of law as an instrument of justice and an instrument of systemic violence, racist exploitation, and other forms of injustice. Bias in sentencing in North America can be traced back to the earliest American colonies and the treatment of people like John Punch.
In 1640, a Black man named Emmanuel and six White men were caught trying to escape from their indentured servitude. All had extra time added to their term of indentured service, but Emmanuel alone was beaten, branded, and shackled for 12 months. In a similar situation, a Black man named John Punch along with two White men were caught trying to run away. The White men were given an extra few years added to their period of service, and John Punch was sentenced to bondage for life.
It is not uncommon for judges to be influenced by their personal beliefs and values. The manifesting results can vary, however. A judge’s political, religious, or other positions can lead them to approach a case with a desired outcome in mind and thus, find a reasoning that supports that outcome. But this isn’t always the case. Judge Brown Jackson’s record clearly contradicts Republican lawmakers’ claims that her holdings are driven by liberal biases rather than the law.
The legacy of Punch and others remains an enduring presence in the American criminal justice system; a prime example is Justice Brown Jackson’s uncle Thomas Brown Jr. (Marimow & Davis, 2022). He was sentenced to life under a three-strikes law. Eventually, due in large part to her own prominence, her uncle’s sentence was commuted by President Obama. Equity in sentencing is not an abstract legal topic for Justice Brown Jackson; it is personal. Moreover, a significant part of her judicial methodology is her insistence on fairness in sentencing and her refusal to look at incarceration as the sole instrument of criminal punishment and deterrence.
Significance in Symbolism
Black political leadership involves symbolism and practical value. There’s considerable debate about the value of representation, especially when the people that achieve high (and historic) status and positions have questionable track records. Yet symbolism is still important. A long-held concern in Black communities is the gradual impact of negative images of Black women and the subsequent effects of such imagery on how Black women view themselves as well as how others perceive them. However, alternative perspectives (like the Drench Hypothesis) tell us that just a few powerful images of Black women (like Michelle Obama) have the power to drown out the noise of mainstream portrayals of Black women that present them as hyper-sexualized, angry, strong, and caretakers.
Justice Brown Jackson’s rise to the Supreme Court–as well as her entire career to this point–challenges the Black community to equip our children with empowering messages about themselves and their possibilities as African people; how to cope with attacks on their personhood as Black people; and how to interpret and appraise images of Black women (Adams-Bass et al., 2014). Justice Brown Jackson’s ascendance also presents Black communities with the challenge of providing awareness and appreciation of her trajectory. Her upbringing, her parents, their lives and careers, the family’s commitments to public education and HBCUs, her work as a public defender and trial judge, her work on the Sentencing Commission, as well as her many other accomplishments speak volumes to the pathways she created, discovered, and pursued as someone with a fairly regular life and background. These are images and stories that Black children across the nation can draw inspiration and motivation from. Justice Brown Jackson’s life and career offer Black youth a real life example, meaning, and symbolism for the Moroccan proverb, endurance pierces marble. Furthermore, Judge Brown Jackson’s ascendance presents Black communities with the challenge of remaining active through all means of political advocacy—from electoral politics to grassroots activism to advocacy for reform on upcoming issues that will be decided by the Supreme Court in the near future, including hot-button issues like abortion and gun control.
Adams-Bass, V., Bentley-Edwards, K. L., & Stevenson, H. C. (2014). That’s not me I see on TV. . . : African American youth interpret media images of Black females. Women, Gender, and Families of Color, 2(1), 79–100. https://doi.org/10.5406/womgenfamcol.2.1.0079
Howe, Amy. “Profile of a potential nominee: Ketanji Brown Jackson.” SCOTUSblog (blog), February 1, 2022, https://www.scotusblog.com/2022/02/profile-of-a-potential-nominee-ketanji-brown-jackson/
Marimow, A. E., & Davis, A. C. (2022). Stark life experience could set one court hopeful apart. Washington Post.
McLaughlin, D. (2022). Judging Jackson. National Review, 74(5), 10–11.