Ketanji Brown Jackson, Leondra Kruger, Michelle Childs Credit - Kevin Lamarque—Pool/AFP/Getty Images; Jeff Chiu—AP; Meg Kinnard—AP
Only five days remain for President Joe Biden to keep his promise to nominate the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court before the end of February.
President Joe Biden has interviewed three top contenders to fill his first Supreme Court vacancy, according to reporting in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and elsewhere: D.C. Circuit Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, and South Carolina District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs. All three women are on the President’s shortlist, a source familiar with the White House vetting processes confirmed to TIME earlier in February.
Biden’s nominee won’t swing the ideological makeup of the court, which has six conservative Justices and three liberal Justices. But she will be the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court in the nation’s history, and at her age—each of these women is below age 56—she’ll likely remain one of the most powerful people in the country for many years to come.
These are President Biden’s top three Supreme Court contenders.
Ketanji Brown Jackson
The 51-year-old judge has been rumored to be the President’s top choice since she was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last year.
Having served as a D.C. district judge since 2013, Jackson was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to the Circuit Court in June 2021 by a vote of 53-44, with Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina voting in her favor. Since she just came before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, her confirmation hearings would likely be swift, according to Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee aides, as Senators have already vetted her record once before.
Jackson was raised in Miami by two teachers, and her friends say her parents instilled in her a deep appreciation for education early on. She was a high school debate star and an oratory national champion, and she went on to attend Harvard University for both undergraduate and law school, where she edited the Harvard Law Review. Jackson clerked for three federal judges including Justice Stephen Breyer, the man she would replace. Former colleagues and friends describe her as meticulous, level-headed and collegial. Richard Schragger, her former Harvard Law classmate and colleague at the law firm Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin says, “I’ve never seen her lose her cool.”
If confirmed, Jackson would bring a variety of professional experiences currently lacking from the high court, having not built a career as a prosecutor or corporate lawyer. She served as a federal public defender from 2005 to 2007, and would be the first Justice since Thurgood Marshall who represented indigent criminal defendants. From 2010 to 2014, Jackson served as vice chair of the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission, a period during which the commission reassessed the 100-to-1 crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Many of the commission’s decisions were unanimous during her tenure, and she built a reputation as a unifier.
Jackson was nominated by President Barack Obama to the D.C. District Court in 2012, where several of her rulings against the Trump Administration later garnered attention. Her 2019 ruling that former Trump White House counsel Donald McGahn had to obey a congressional subpoena would likely be a subject of questioning by Republican Senators were she to be nominated to the Supreme Court. “Presidents are not kings,” Jackson wrote in that 2019 decision. “They do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control.”
Although she lives three time zones away, California Supreme Court Associate Justice Leondra Kruger has earned a formidable reputation in Washington.
The 45-year-old justice was raised in South California; her mother immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica and her father’s parents came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe. She attended Harvard University for her undergraduate degree and Yale University for law school, where she was the first Black woman editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal. She then headed to Washington, where she clerked for D.C. Circuit Court Judge David Tatel and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, before entering private practice and becoming a visiting professor at University of Chicago Law School.
From 2007 to 2013, Kruger served as an assistant to the United States solicitor general and the acting principal deputy solicitor general, arguing 12 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including a high-profile religious rights case in which the court ruled against the Obama Administration. Kruger then joined the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, where she helped strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex marriage, and uphold the Affordable Care Act.
In 2014, California Gov. Jerry Brown named Kruger to the California Supreme Court when she was 38 years old. In her seven years on the bench, Kruger has developed a reputation as an attentive incrementalist, telling the Los Angeles Times in 2018 that she strives to perform her job in a way that “enhances the predictability and stability of the law and public confidence and trust in the work of the courts.”
The Biden Administration reportedly asked Kruger twice to serve as solicitor general. Now, if she’s offered a Supreme Court nomination instead, she would be the first Justice since David Souter whose primary judicial experience came from a state Supreme Court instead of a federal court. Given that she hasn’t previously come before the Senate Judiciary Committee, her vetting and confirmation process would likely take longer than other candidates.
J. Michelle Childs
Judge J. Michelle Childs, who serves on the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, has powerful allies within the Beltway.
South Carolina Democrat Rep. Jim Clyburn has been openly campaigning for Childs’ nomination, telling Axios that he’s been advocating for Childs to the White House for the past six months—long before Breyer’s retirement was even announced. Childs, 55, also has earned plaudits from South Carolina Republican Sen. Graham, who sits on the Judiciary Committee. Graham told reporters on Feb. 2 that Childs is “somebody I could see myself supporting.” He warned that if Biden’s pick isn’t Childs, it could be “much more problematic.”
Born in Detroit, Childs moved to Columbia, S.C., when she was in her mid-teens and was raised by a single mother. She attended University of South Florida for her undergraduate studies and University of South Carolina for law school. If confirmed, Childs would be the only Justice on the Supreme Court besides Amy Coney Barrett who did not attend Harvard or Yale Law School. “I think a public university and a public law school gives you a different perspective,” says Bob Coble, the former Mayor of Columbia who worked with Childs at the law firm Nexsen Pruet, where Childs launched her legal career. “I think that’s a perspective that most of us have that would be a good addition to the court.”
Childs made partner at Nexsen Pruet in 2000, becoming the first Black woman to be a partner at a major South Carolina law firm. Some progressive groups have argued that some of Childs’ cases at Nexsen Pruet defending employers accused of race and gender discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace would go against Biden’s pledge to be the most “pro-union president” in history. Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of progressive political group Our Revolution, which supports Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, said in a statement that workers “do not need another anti-labor Justice actively opposing the very labor protections this Administration is working to uphold and expand.”
In 2009, Childs was named by Obama to the South Carolina District Court, and she was quickly confirmed by the Senate in a voice vote. While on the bench, Childs has built a reputation as fair, even-headed, and swift. One of her most high-profile decisions came in 2014, when she ruled that state of South Carolina violated the Constitution by refusing to recognize out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples.