Supreme Court justice ties lessons from reality show ‘Survivor’ into commencement address

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When Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson delivered her commencement address to American University law students on Saturday, she leaned on an unexpected source for life advice: The reality television show “Survivor.”

“I am a ‘Survivor’ superfan,” Jackson told graduates of the American University Washington College of Law in her first commencement speech since her elevation to the high court. “That’s right. When I say ‘Survivor,’ I am indeed referring to the reality TV show, where people are stranded on an island and compete to become the last person standing.”

The long-running reality series served as the central theme of Jackson’s speech as she weaved in certain episodes to teach life lessons on how to survive a legal career.

“If you make the most of the resources you have, use your strengths to make your mark and play the long game in your interactions with others, you will not only survive – you will thrive,” she said.

Jackson, who was confirmed to the court last year, barely mentioned her day job during her remarks in Washington, but she did note that May is a “busy time.” She also revealed that it has not entirely sunken in as yet that she is a Supreme Court justice.

“I still wake up some mornings confused as to whether this is really happening to me or am I living in a dream,” Jackson said.

Her speech detailed her “incredible journey” since graduating from law school. She noted, for instance, that while it is well known that she is the first African American woman to serve on the high court, she also was only the 40th female African American to be appointed to a federal district court, and only the ninth to serve on the federal circuit court.

Jackson’s speech came as the justices are racing to finish more than 30 opinions by the end of June that include divisive issues such as affirmative action, voting rights and religious liberty. As the junior-most justice on the bench, it is unlikely that Jackson will be assigned to write the majority opinion in any of the cases that most capture the public’s attention, especially because of the court’s strong 6-3 conservative majority. To date, she has cast her vote with fellow liberal justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor on high-profile disputes that usually fall along traditional ideological lines.

In addition, she has been the most vocal member of the court during oral arguments, often dominating the dais to ask questions. “Justice Jackson had a record setting term with over 78.8k words spoken across all arguments,” Adam Feldman, a Supreme Court scholar, tweeted recently.

The high court is running unusually late in issuing opinions, so it is difficult to cull together detailed vote patterns for Jackson. In some cases, she has found herself siding with conservatives.

On Saturday, she made no mention of tensions on the Supreme Court, nor did she refer to increasing pressure from outside parties to have the court adopt an ethics code directed at the justices themselves.

Instead, she spoke directly to the students about life in the law. Quoting the host of her favorite reality show, Jackson turned to the graduates and said: “Survivors ready? Go!”

“You are ready.”

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