Ketanji Brown Jackson was Miami’s high school debate star


Before Ketanji Brown Jackson was a front-runner for a U.S. Supreme Court nomination, she was a speech and debate superstar at Miami Palmetto Senior High School.

As a high school student in 1988, Jackson, who had by then gone by Ketanji Brown, won the national oratory title at the National Catholic Forensic League Championships, one of the largest high school debating tournaments in the nation.

“She was a star in the making,” said Nathaniel Persily, Jackson’s former classmate and debate teammate at Palmetto and now a Stanford law professor.

Jackson was also elected the “mayor” of Palmetto Junior High, Persily said, and student body president at 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?” said Persily.

A Supreme Court seat could now be on the line for Jackson after news broke on Wednesday that Justice Stephen Breyer plans to retire at the end of his current term.

Although the White House has not announced a shortlist, Brown, who currently sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, is widely seen as one of the top contenders along with Justice California Supreme Court, Leondra Kruger.

President Joe Biden previously pledged to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court. Jackson or Kruger would become the third black judge and sixth woman in the court’s history.

Jackson, 51, was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the southern suburbs of Miami. Her father, Johnny Brown, was an attorney for the Miami-Dade school board, and her mother, Ellery Brown, was principal of the New World School of the Arts, a public high school and college in Miami that specializes in dual-enrollment programs. from 1993 to 2007.

At a 2017 lecture at the University of Georgia, Jackson said her speaking and debating 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 to reason and to write,” she says. “I have no doubt that, of all the different things I’ve done, it was my high school experience as a competitive speaker that taught me to lean through the odds.”

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 a year after her, said he and Jackson went to prom together at 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 surprising at all,” Greenberg, now a partner at the Miami law firm Greenberg Traurig, said of Jackson as a potential candidate for the Supreme Court. “She was incredibly smart, hardworking, super honest and one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet.”

Miami criminal defense attorney David O. Markus remembered Jackson when he attended Killian High School and faced her in debates.

“She’s 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 candidate for the Supreme Court, but more importantly, a great person.”

As a high school student, Jackson received an honorable mention in the drama category of the Miami Herald’s Silver Knight awards, according to Herald records.

At a Palmetto High panel on prejudice that same year, Jackson, then 17, said an acting teacher told her she wouldn’t have a chance to play a role in a play on 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 of the event.

In October 1987, Jackson was among the Palmetto High students who allegedly “fried” then-US 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 allowing offshore oil drilling,” telling the secretary, “Oil and water don’t mix.”

The Senate confirmed Jackson in June to the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, a traditional stepping stone to the Supreme Court, by a vote of 53 to 44. She won the support of all Democrats and three Republicans.

But she did not receive support from any of her home state’s senators. Republican Florida Sen. Rick Scott voted against Jackson, while Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was one of three senators who did not participate in the vote. Rubio’s office did not immediately say Wednesday whether it would support Jackson’s potential nomination.

After high school, Jackson graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. She served as clerk for Breyer, the justice she could potentially replace, during the 1999-2000 Supreme Court term.

Jackson also served as an assistant federal public defender in the District of Columbia, vice chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and judge of the United States 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 top graduates, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (Class of 1982) and US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy (Class of 1994).

This story was originally published January 26, 2022 7:43 p.m.

Aaron Leibowitz is a city government reporter for the Miami Herald. He writes about local politics in every city, town, and city in Miami-Dade County and sometimes beyond.


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