Before Ketanji Brown Jackson was one of the front-runners for a U.S. Supreme Court nomination, she was a speech and debate superstar at Miami Palmetto Senior High School.
As a high school senior in 1988, Jackson, who then went by Ketanji Brown, won the national oratory title at the National Catholic Forensic League Championships, one of the largest high school debate tournaments in the country.
“She was a star in the making,” said Nathaniel Persily, Jackson’s former classmate and debate teammate at Palmetto and now a law professor at Stanford.
Jackson was also elected “mayor” of Palmetto Junior High, Persily said, and student body president of her high school.
“The only question was, was she going to be on the Supreme Court or was she going to be president of the United States?” Persily said.
A Supreme Court seat could now be in play for Jackson after news broke Wednesday that Justice Stephen Breyer plans to retire at the end of the current term. While the White House hasn’t announced a short list, Jackson, who currently serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, is widely considered a leading contender along with California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger.
President Joe Biden has previously pledged to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court. Either Jackson or Kruger would become the third Black justice and the sixth woman in the court’s history.
Jackson, 51, was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in suburban South Miami-Dade. Her father, Johnny Brown, was the attorney for the Miami-Dade School Board, and her mother, Ellery Brown, was the principal at New World School of the Arts, a public magnet high school and college in Miami specializing in dual enrollment programs, from 1993 to 2007.
In a 2017 lecture at the University of Georgia, Jackson said her speech and debate experience at Palmetto High gave her “the self-confidence that can sometimes be quite difficult for women and minorities to develop at an early age.”
“I learned how to reason and how to write,” she said. “I have no doubt that, of all the various things that I’ve done, it is my high school experience as a competitive speaker that taught me how to lean in despite the obstacles.”
Ben Greenberg, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida who was on the debate team with Jackson at Palmetto High and graduated one year after her, said he and Jackson went to prom together as dates when he was a junior and she was a senior.
“On the one hand, it’s incredibly exciting, and on the other hand it’s not at all surprising,” Greenberg, now a partner at Greenberg Traurig law firm in Miami, said of Jackson as a potential Supreme Court nominee. “She was incredibly smart, hard-working, super honest, and one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.”
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Miami criminal defense attorney David O. Markus remembered Jackson from when he attended Killian High School and competed against her in debates.
“She is the absolute best — smart, friendly, engaging, dynamic,” said Markus, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1997, the year after Jackson. “She’s an ideal Supreme Court candidate, but more importantly, a great person.”
As a high school senior, Jackson received an honorable mention in the drama category of the Miami Herald’s Silver Knight awards, according to the Herald’s archives.
During a Palmetto High panel about prejudice that same year, Jackson, then 17, recounted a drama teacher telling her she wouldn’t have a chance at a role in a play about a white family because she was Black. “If you don’t talk about it, you never deal with it,” Jackson said at the time, according to a Herald report about the event.
In October 1987, Jackson was among the Palmetto High students who reportedly “grilled” then-U.S. Interior Secretary Donald Hodel during a visit to Miami.
Jackson, the Herald reported, asked Hodel why his department was “endangering Florida’s irreplaceable reefs by permitting offshore oil drilling,” telling the secretary: “Oil and water don’t mix.”
The Senate confirmed Jackson in June to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a traditional springboard for the Supreme Court, by a vote of 53-44.
She garnered support from every Democrat and three Republicans. But she did not receive support from either of her home state senators. Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott voted against Jackson, while Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was one of three senators who didn’t participate in the vote. Rubio’s office did not immediately say Wednesday whether he would support Jackson’s potential nomination.
After high school, Jackson graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. She clerked for Breyer, the justice she could potentially replace, during the 1999-2000 Supreme Court term.
Jackson has also served as an assistant federal public defender in the District of Columbia, vice chairperson of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia appointed by President Barack Obama.
Miami Palmetto Senior High School, a public school in Pinecrest, has produced a host of other high-powered graduates, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (class of 1982) and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy (class of 1994).