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Ketanji Brown Jackson is quickly settling into Supreme Court role: experts

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  • Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson has served on the Supreme Court for just over two months.
  • She dominated the oral arguments and attracted attention from left and right.
  • “We haven’t really seen anyone on the outside who’s engaged,” one academic said.

On the first day of the Supreme Court’s term, a lawyer was delivering his closing arguments when Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson intervened.

“Lawyer, can you just speak to the representation that was made regarding the Sacketts’ property,” Jackson began asking during a high-stakes environmental case heard on Oct. 3.

In recent practice, the court has generally set aside time for lawyers to give their last word without interruption. But the new judge seemed to ignore that rule, continuing with four more questions. The back and forth ended once Chief Justice John Roberts intervened.

“We’ll give you an extra minute for your rebuttal,” he told the attorney.

The scene represents a learning moment for Jackson on his first day on the bench. But it also revealed how quickly and comfortably Jackson was diving into her new job — a pace she’s maintained for the past two months.

In the short time since her debut, Jackson has dominated oral arguments, become the center of numerous media columns, released her first two dissents, and received praise from the left and criticism from the right. Court watchers say it is rare for a newcomer to be so vocal and attract such attention at the start of their tenure.

Whether Jackson’s presence will change the court and its decision-making remains to be seen. But in the meantime, Jackson, who broke barriers as the first black woman on the court, appears to be innovating.

“It’s unique. We haven’t really seen anyone on the outside who is that engaged,” Adam Feldman, Supreme Court scholar and author of the Empirical SCOTUS blog, told Insider.

The Supreme Court of the United States, Thursday, October 19. 6, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Jackson’s speaking time

Jackson has notably made waves due to everything she’s spoken about from the bench so far. felt, who tracked this data, found that in the first eight oral arguments of the term, Jackson spoke 11,003 words, far more than any other judge. The second, liberal judge Sonia Sotomayor, spoke for less than half that amount.

During this same period, newly appointed judges on both sides of the ideological spectrum were noticeably quieter than Jackson. Judge Amy Coney Barrett spoke 4,475 words in her first two weeks on the court. Sotomayor spoke a little less than that. Judges Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch each spoke less than 3,000 words.

“It’s just unusual for a judge to start out so comfortably. Usually there’s an acclimatization period. We’ve seen that with just about everyone on the court,” Feldman said, describing the so- saying freshman effect: Judges become more confident while speaking. and more ideological the more time they spend on the bench.

But that didn’t apply to Jackson, who has already shown his willingness to wield the mic extensively. She relied on the arguments of her colleagues, grilled lawyers at the desk and sometimes shared her views with the court, some of which were hailed by the left.

“She doesn’t just ask questions, but she sets the historical context,” Feldman said. “She’s showing her position.”

Consider the leading suffrage case, Merrill v. Milligan, who is currently in court. The dispute involves the redesigned 2021 congressional map of Alabama’s Republican-led legislature, which a lower court struck down as a likely violation of the Voting Rights Act, landmark 1965 legislation that prohibits the electoral discrimination based on race. But Alabama turned to the Supreme Court, arguing that its map was legal and racially neutral.

“Why do you assume this is a race-neutral plan?” jackson asked Alabama during oral arguments on October 4adding, “We’re talking about a situation where race has already permeated the voting system.”

The most recent judge repeatedly questioned Alabama’s position, which said the 14th Amendment, passed in 1868 to establish equal protections for all citizens, conflicts with the Voting Rights Act. Jackson pushed back.

The framers of the 14th Amendment “were trying to ensure that people who had been discriminated against — freedmen during the Reconstruction period — were in fact equal to all other members of society,” Jackson said. “It’s not a race-neutral or race-blind idea.”

Legal progressives applauded Jackson’s interpretation. She relied on the text of the Constitution to make her case, they said, challenging the conservative judicial philosophy known as originalism.

“It’s high time we presented these different visions of the Constitution forcefully and publicly in court,” Elizabeth Wydra, president of the progressive-leaning Constitutional Accountability Center, told Insider.

It’s no surprise that President Joe Biden’s appointee Jackson shared what is seen as a liberal view of the law. But what’s important, say observers, is Jackson’s willingness to divulge his thoughts.

“In a way, it just reflects the fact that she’s probably the most qualified and experienced new judge we’ve seen in a long time,” Wydra said. And I don’t say that as a criticism against the other judges.

The Justices of the United States Supreme Court during a formal group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on Friday, October 19, 2019. 7, 2022.

Photo by Eric Lee/UPI

Conservative majority 6-3

Pleadings allow judges to ask questions, sometimes to help them decide a case. Lawyers try to fill in the gaps about uncertainties judges may have.

But the debate is also the first time the judges have learned of their colleagues’ thoughts on the dispute. In other words, the judges talk to each other just as much as they talk to the lawyers before them.

Some court watchers say the closing arguments can potentially be an opportunity for the judiciary to influence the thinking of their colleagues – although this does not happen often. Judges may have made their decision before even hearing a case, they say.

As a member of the liberal bloc, Jackson’s questioning may not alter the votes of conservative justices or make a difference in court decisions this term. The 6-3 Conservative majority recently handed down a series of historic decisions that moved the country to the right, and is likely to continue to do so, according to legal experts.

“I think the big talk Jackson stuff is a waste of time. I mean, I really don’t care,” South Texas College of Law professor Josh Blackman told Insider. “It’s fine to count the number of words she says, but it doesn’t really matter. We’ll see how many votes she gets. I think it’s a much more important metric.”

Yet there are issues with each term in which ideological lines are not clearly drawn. This seemed to happen when the justices heard Moore v. Harper on December 7, a consecutive case that could upset the course of the American elections.

Besides the three liberal justices, some of the conservatives seemed skeptical of the argument made by Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, who claimed that state lawmakers had the power to draw ballot cards and set election laws without no oversight from state courts.

During the three hours of closing arguments, Jackson frequently threw cold water on the idea. “Is this your argument that the state constitution has no role to play, period?” she asked.

Jackson also voiced his concerns, which were echoed by arguing attorneys on the other side of the dispute.

“I guess what worries me a bit is the suggestion that when the legislature exercises legislative authority in this context, it doesn’t have to adhere to any constitutional constraints of the state on its power,” she said.

“That’s one hundred percent correct, Judge Jackson,” the attorney replied.

Sometimes Jackson watched his colleagues on the bench, seemingly to make sure they were listening.

“She spoke for long periods of time, she made history, and it was just as much about her making the statement, so it was there, because it was, I think, about trying to attract a response,” Feldman said.

The court has yet to issue a decision this quarter. But whatever they may be, legal observers say Jackson’s voice on the court has been significant and should be heeded.

“It enhances the quality of judgment to have such a brilliant and dedicated jurist like her on the bench, even though she’s not necessarily going to change the outcome in any particular case because of the make-up of the court at the moment,” said Wydra. “It’s important for the American people to see that there are different visions of what constitutional equality and democracy mean.”

And “even if his vision is at odds right now, it’s not necessarily going to be true forever,” she added. “One day we may see a Chief Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in the majority.”

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