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Ketanji Brown Jackson could be the 1st in SCOTUS with experience as a public defender

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson sat before senators today for the second day of hearings on her nomination to the Supreme Court. If confirmed, Jackson would be the first justice to have served as a federal public defender.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KETANJI BROWN JACKSON: Federal public defenders don't get to pick their clients. They have to represent whoever comes in, and it's a service. You are standing up for the constitutional value of representation.

SUMMERS: Jackson held that job from 2005 to 2007, and A.J. Kramer was her supervisor. He is the federal public defender for the District of Columbia, and he joins me now. Welcome.

A J KRAMER: Thank you very much. It's especially a pleasure to be talking about Judge Jackson's nomination.

SUMMERS: Mr. Kramer, briefly, what can you tell us about the types of cases that Jackson took while she was working in your office?

KRAMER: Well, she worked on a wide variety of cases. Her primary assignment was she was an appeals lawyer. We have a trial division and an appellate division, and she worked in the appellate division almost exclusively. So she was doing appeals where someone had been already convicted or sentenced. And she also worked on some of the - as you've heard in the hearings - the Guantanamo habeas cases that our office had at the time.

SUMMERS: What more can you tell us about those cases and how they may be relevant to her nomination?

KRAMER: So the Supreme Court had held that the Guantanamo detainees had a right to petition in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for habeas corpus to challenge their detention. It was a brand new area of law. Nobody - we didn't really know what we were doing. Somebody extremely talented in both legal thinking and legal writing had to work on the cases, and Judge Jackson was the logical choice. And the main thing, I think - and I think she made it clear, but I'm not sure everybody understood. In the public defender's office, we take every case that comes in that's assigned to the office, and she was assigned the Guantanamo cases. So it's not something she actively sought out.

SUMMERS: As we mentioned, if confirmed, Judge Jackson would become the first Supreme Court justice with experience as a federal public defender, as well as the first since Justice Thurgood Marshall with significant experience representing criminal defendants. Why is it so rare to see former public defenders on the Supreme Court?

KRAMER: I think because, mistakenly, people impute that the public defender shares the views of their clients somehow or criminal defense lawyers, in general, do. It's advocating for a client who's in very - especially public defenders - who come from very unfortunate circumstances and find themselves in one of the most difficult times of their lives. And I think that that's a valuable experience that's all too often not - people are not put on the bench because there's this, as I said, viewpoint that you're somehow soft on crime or somehow agree with what they've done.

SUMMERS: And then, I guess, that leads to a natural question of how might Judge Jackson's experience as a public defender shape her decisions if she is, indeed, confirmed as a Supreme Court justice by the Senate?

KRAMER: I think, as she expressed, it gave her an invaluable understanding that the person is very scared. They're facing a system that's overwhelming and that they need to be informed all along the way of what's going on and why it's going on. And I think that she said that's an invaluable experience that she took from the job, that that perspective is all too rare on the bench and, obviously, on the Supreme Court.

SUMMERS: That is A.J. Kramer, the federal public defender for the District of Columbia and the former supervisor of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. Thank you so much for being with us today.

KRAMER: Thank you for having me - appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.