At Harvard, Ketanji Brown Jackson Fought Injustices but Kept a Steely Academic Focus

During Judge Jackson’s ascent through the federal judiciary, during which she received some Republican support in confirmation votes, she was questioned more than once about the role of race in the justice system. Responding to such a question from Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, during her confirmation process to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last year, she said that when she received a case, “I’m methodically and intentionally setting aside personal views, any other inappropriate considerations, and I would think that race would be the kind of thing that would be inappropriate to inject in my evaluation of a case.”

She has recused herself from a number of cases to eliminate any suggestion of bias, including ones that could pose conflicts given her role on the Harvard board, according to her Senate questionnaire. One involved a professor who sued the Environmental Protection Agency over a Freedom of Information Act request. Another challenged the Department of Education’s campus sexual assault rules, to which Harvard was reviewing its own response.

When Judge Jackson was elected to the board in 2016, she was supported by the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, a group of alumni that endorsed her as a candidate to help “safeguard campus diversity.” The coalition supported the school’s policy of making race a consideration in admissions, according to one of its notices at the time, and hoped her slate would defeat one that included candidates who had publicly opposed affirmative action.

At the time, Judge Jackson declined to answer a question on a questionnaire about affirmative action on a survey the coalition gave to candidates, saying that as a sitting federal judge, “I feel duty bound not to express my personal views on matters of significance that have the potential to come before me in court.”

In choosing Judge Jackson, President Biden followed through on a campaign promise to nominate a Black woman for the Supreme Court. Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, is among several legal scholars who have argued that Mr. Biden used “exclusionary criteria” in considering only Black women as potential nominees. In an opinion column, Mr. Turley asserted that the president’s criteria were unfair to whomever he ultimately picked as his nominee, in part because she would then have to hear a case that determined whether those same criteria should be used in college admissions.

But Mr. Turley said in an interview that his belief that Judge Jackson should recuse herself has nothing to do with her race. “Most citizens would be taken aback by a judge, let alone a justice, voting on a case on a university on which she sat on a governing board,” he said. “It would be akin to a justice ruling on an Exxon lease dispute after being on an Exxon board.”

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