Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was on the mind of many El Pasoans when she made history Thursday as the first Black woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Jackson’s personal background, as the daughter of working-class parents who attended racially segregated schools, resonates with many Borderland residents. She was born in the 1970s, a decade after Congress enacted historic civil rights legislation that helped open some doors as she pursued her legal career.
Ouisa Davis, local attorney and former associate municipal court judge, received her law license just a couple years ahead of Judge Jackson. Davis, who is also Black, would occasionally look up Judge Jackson’s opinions after she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2021.
“I was always just really impressed with her thought process and very thorough, well-developed rationale,” Davis said. “I was very excited when she was nominated, not only because she is a Black woman, but because of … the need for diverse backgrounds in the Supreme Court.”
Jackson will also be the first Supreme Court justice to have worked as a federal public defender, which Davis said is an important background for judges to have, especially in civil rights-related cases.
“A lot of criminal defense work involves the protection of the civil rights of the defendant,” Davis said. “Civil rights is about protecting people from government action. Here on the border we talk about the limits of Border Patrol actions, engaging in traffic stops, and your right against unreasonable search and seizure.”
Thomas Carter IV, a native Black El Pasoan who works as a criminal defense and personal injury attorney, said experience in public defense helps judges understand how the law applies to everyday people.
“It’s very important because it allows you to see how tough it is, not just (for) minorities, but defendants in general, and especially poor defendants,” he said. “Poor defendants generally do not get a fair shake in the legal system.”
Local Judge Linda Chew, who presides over civil cases in Judicial District Court 327, comes from a well-known family of Mexican, Asian Americans, who crisscrossed the U.S./Mexico border before and after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Chew expressed pride in Thursday’s confirmation of Judge Jackson.
“It is a joyful day,” she said. “KBJ brings to the bench this incredible education, a breadth and depth of life experiences that is much needed at the Supreme Court.”
During her confirmation hearings, Republican senators questioned Jackson about her defense of Guantanamo Bay detainees and her sentencing decisions in cases involving child pornography. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz implied that Jackson was overly lenient in those sentencing decisions. A USA Today review of Jackson’s decisions showed they were in line with other judges’ decisions in similar cases.
Democrat Veronica Escobar, who is the first Latina to represent El Paso in Congress, said the Republican Senators mischaracterized Judge Jackson’s record.
“It is no secret that women of color must work twice as hard to reach our dreams while our accomplishments face twice as much scrutiny,” Escobar said in a statement. “It was an incredible privilege to watch the extremely qualified Judge Jackson shatter yet another glass ceiling. Her confirmation makes the highest court of the land a step closer to looking like the rest of the country.”
Lynn Coyle, a local attorney who often works with civil rights-related cases, said she believes Jackson’s confirmation represents an important moment in the nation’s history.
“Very contentious, highly politicized issues come before the Supreme Court. I think (Judge Jackson) has the demeanor and the capacity to hear those cases with a cool, analytical head,” she said. “There’s no question in my mind she will strengthen the institution.”
Mónica Ortiz Uribe can be reached at [email protected]