GDS Trustee Considered Potential Pathbreaking Supreme Court Nominee

Digital illustration by Nava Mach.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black member of the Supreme Court, sent both of his sons to GDS. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s son attended GDS before she became the second female jurist to ascend to the highest court in the land.

And when Justice Stephen Breyer decided in late January to retire at the end of the Court’s term, D.C. Circuit Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the mother of senior Leila Jackson and a GDS trustee, immediately appeared to be a leading candidate to fill his seat.

President Joe Biden vowed during the 2020 campaign to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, a commitment he reaffirmed when announcing Breyer’s retirement. 

Junior Pilar Holder said she is excited to see “someone who looks like me” appointed to the Supreme Court.

Other possible candidates, several national news organizations have reported, include California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, 45, and J. Michelle Childs, 55, a district judge in South Carolina strongly favored by the influential Democratic Representative James Clyburn of the same state. Jackson is 51.

History teacher Carlos Angulo worked as a lawyer for almost three decades before arriving at GDS and now teaches the elective Law and Constitutional Rights. “Usually, where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” he said of the speculation about Biden’s likeliest picks.

D.C. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, a GDS parent and former Justice Department attorney who also serves on the Board of Trustees, told the Bit that Jackson’s background makes her “the perfect person to be nominated.” She received a degree from Harvard Law School, clerked for Breyer, worked as a federal public defender and served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, according to her official bio.

The Senate confirmed Jackson for her current position on the D.C. appellate court last June after Biden nominated her. “That really helps to position her,” McDuffie said.

Jackson joined the Board in 2019. McDuffie, who works with Jackson on the Facilities Master Planning Committee, said she has brought a “special eye for nuance and complex legal issues” to her work on the Board.

In recent history, Angulo said, most Supreme Court nominees have been federal appellate judges. Jackson is the only one among the jurists floated as likely choices. 

“It would be a source of pride for the school” if Jackson were nominated to the high court and confirmed again by the Senate, Angulo said. “It would be a pathbreaking nomination.” He has discussed Breyer’s retirement with his class.

Junior Asha Adiga-Biro, a member of Angulo’s class, cautioned that the school community should not make too much of Jackson’s personal tie if she were appointed and confirmed. “I don’t think that there needs to be this correlation,” she said, adding that, if Jackson is nominated, it would detract from her own accomplishment for GDS to play up its connection.

Leila Jackson and Judge Jackson declined requests for interviews with the Bit.

History teacher Sue Ikenberry said in an interview that Jackson initially suggested that GDS students should take part in a mock court exercise judged by members of D.C. federal courts. Ikenberry’s two U.S. Political History classes will participate for the second time this March.

Ikenberry said her classes last spring enjoyed the chance to argue constitutional disputes before members of the city’s federal courts. “I feel I owe her,” Ikenberry said about Jackson. 

Jackson also was a panelist at the virtual Benjamin Cooper Memorial Lecture in November 2020, which commemorated Ginsburg’s life and work.

“A lot of women, myself included, face setbacks in our careers,” Jackson said on the Cooper Lecture Zoom, adding that she was inspired by how Ginsburg not only overcame but, through litigation and judicial decisions, dismantled obstacles for American women. 

Ikenberry envisions that having Jackson as a justice might allow students to pay a special visit to the Supreme Court or even meet its members.

Adiga-Biro noted that several GDS parents hold positions of power in the federal government. (Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, who will play a role in the selection process, is a parent of alumni.) “Sometimes, living in D.C., we all forget about how much privilege we have to be in the center of it and have these connections,” she said.

GDS has a long history of connections to the Supreme Court. Marshall served on the Board of Trustees before President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the appellate court in New York, former Associate Head of School Kevin Barr told the Bit.

Barr, who is working for GDS temporarily to help with hiring, wrote a history of the school he expects will be published this spring. Marshall and Ginsburg’s decisions to send their children to GDS demonstrated their appreciation of its community and educational values, Barr said.

He added that Justice Abe Fortas and his wife Carolyn Agger were involved with GDS’ founding: Agger, a lawyer, drafted and signed GDS’ original incorporation documents. The couple did not have children.

When asked whether she thought Jackson would continue to serve on GDS’ Board if she were to join the Supreme Court, Ikenberry said, “I suspect she would feel that it was a bit of a conflict of interest.” 

McDuffie said he hopes Jackson would decide to remain on the Board, where she is “a benefit to the GDS community.”

In his speech announcing Breyer’s retirement, Biden said he would pick his nominee by the end of February. If confirmed, she will not replace Breyer until the end of the Supreme Court’s current term, after Jackson’s daughter will have graduated.

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