Editor’s Note: Elie Honig is a CNN senior legal analyst and former federal and state prosecutor, and author of “Hatchet Man: How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor’s Code and Corrupted the Justice Department.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN. Watch Honig answer readers’ questions on “CNN Newsroom with Jim Acosta” on weekends.
In November 2019, I covered a hearing for CNN on a US House of Representatives subpoena to former White House counsel Don McGahn. The federal district court judge presiding over the case was then largely unknown to the general public, but now may be on the precipice of a nomination to the United States Supreme Court: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
As a prosecutor, I appeared before dozens of federal and state judges. I don’t say this lightly: Jackson was as impressive on the bench as any of them, ranking among the absolute finest judges I’ve ever seen in action.
On the day of the hearing, Jackson immediately made clear that she was in charge of her courtroom, but she did it without ego or drama. She commanded respect by her presence, by her obvious level of preparation and by the dignified way she treated the parties before her.
Some judges struggle to control their courtrooms and the attorneys before them, while others are unnecessarily domineering and arrogant. Jackson naturally found a perfect middle ground, keeping firm control of the proceedings, while also creating an environment of respect and professionalism.
Jackson plainly had read and absorbed the parties’ briefs – candidly, not all judges do that – and she asked incisive, penetrating questions that challenged the core assertions made by both sides. She understood the facts of the case and the law, perhaps in more depth even than some of the attorneys before her.
During the argument and in her eventual opinion, Jackson adhered closely to established precedent, acknowledged the limitations of the judiciary’s power and challenged McGahn’s assertion of absolute executive branch immunity and the basis for the House’s subpoena.
Jackson was evenhanded, spending nearly equal amounts of time questioning the parties for each side, and she showed no predisposition or favoritism either way. She was also responsive to the public, acknowledging the media that had gathered in the courtroom and ensuring that we had full access to the hearing – even allowing for a media overflow room.
Ultimately, Jackson issued a thorough – exhaustive, even – ruling that ran 118 pages. Her decision was deeply researched, impeccably written and incisive. In deciding in favor of the House and ordering enforcement of the McGahn subpoena, over the executive privilege claims of then-President Donald Trump, Jackson memorably wrote, “Stated simply, the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings.” Higher courts, including the US Supreme Court, later similarly rejected Trump’s overbroad invocations of executive privilege.
Get our free weekly newsletter
About a year and a half later, in June 2021, Jackson was confirmed as a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. President Joe Biden, apparently recognizing Jackson’s unique talents, had nominated her to the nation’s most prestigious intermediate court of appeals, which is often regarded as the nation’s second-most-powerful court (after the US Supreme Court, of course). The Senate confirmed Judge Jackson by a 53-44 vote, with three Republicans – Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine – supporting her confirmation.
It is too early to tell if Biden will nominate Jackson or any of the other rumored contenders – including California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger and South Carolina US District Judge J. Michelle Childs. However, if Biden does nominate Jackson for the Supreme Court, it’ll be tough for those three Republican senators to reverse course and oppose her nomination. And it would be a mistake to do so, whatever the politics, because Jackson, based on my observation of her in this case and her broader judicial record, has proved herself to be a truly exceptional federal judge.