STACKER — This week, Ketanji Brown Jackson became the third African American and the sixth woman to be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Brown Jackson, who will replace Justice Stephen Breyer when he steps down later this year, will also become the first justice who has worked as a public defender — a type of attorney appointed to represent individuals who cannot afford to hire lawyers to defend themselves — to join the nation’s highest court.
The current Supreme Court justices took different paths to achieve their esteemed positions. For instance, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020, was appointed in 1993 and faced many challenges on her path to becoming a SCOTUS justice. She encountered sexism in her attempt to get clerkships as a female law graduate in the 1950s and received lower pay than her male colleagues when she taught at Rutgers Law School in the 1960s.
Below, the professional histories of every current justice on the Supreme Court, including Brown Jackson.
Clarence Thomas (1991)
After his admittance to the Missouri Bar in 1974, Thomas worked as assistant attorney general of Missouri under state Attorney General John Danforth, and was the only African American on Danforth’s staff. After changing roles when Danforth was elected to the Senate in 1976, Thomas returned to work for him in the late ‘70s as a legislative assistant focusing on energy issues for the Senate Commerce Committee. Danforth would play an important role in endorsing Thomas as a Supreme Court justice.
In the early 1980s, Thomas took on the role of assistant secretary of education for the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, and then as chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1982 to 1990. In the latter role, Thomas sought cases of individual discrimination rather than adhere to the commission’s habitual method of filing class-action discrimination lawsuits. He opined that Black leaders were all talk and no action in terms of the Reagan administration’s shortcomings, and that they should have collaborated with the federal government to improve issues such as illiteracy and teen pregnancy.
Stephen Breyer (1994)
In 1964, Breyer clerked for Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg and later worked in the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice as a special assistant to the assistant attorney general. In 1967 he began teaching at his alma mater, Harvard Law School, and later worked as an assistant prosecutor on the Watergate Special Prosecution Force in 1973.
He served as special counsel, and later as chief counsel, to the Administrative Practices Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He collaborated with the committee’s chairman Edward M. Kennedy to execute the Airline Deregulation Act.
John Roberts (2005)
As a new law graduate, Roberts clerked for appellate Judge Henry Friendly and William Rehnquist, whom he succeeded on the Supreme Court. In the 1980s, Roberts served as special assistant to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith, and then as associate counsel to President Ronald Reagan. While working for the law firm Hogan & Hartson in the mid-1980s, Roberts carried out pro bono work for LGBTQ+ rights activists and prepped arguments for the 1996 case Romer v. Evans, which involved sexual orientation as related to state law.
In 1989, Roberts took on the role of principal deputy solicitor general under President George H. W. Bush. After three years as solicitor general, he returned to practicing law privately and taught law at Georgetown University. He was part of the team of lawyers that advised Gov. Jeb Bush during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida.
Samuel A. Alito Jr. (2006)
After graduating from law school, Alito clerked under Judge Leonard Garth in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. From the early to mid-1980s, he worked as Deputy Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General Rex E. Lee, under whom he argued 12 cases for the federal government in the Supreme Court. From 1987 to 1990, Alito served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, appointed by Ronald Reagan. In this role, he successfully prosecuted the 1988 case of an FBI agent who was shot in the field and prosecuted a sympathizer of the Japanese Red Army who was found with homemade bombs in his car at a New Jersey Turnpik service center.
Sonia Sotomayor (2009)
Freshly out of law school in 1979, Sotomayor landed a position as an assistant district attorney under New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. In the wake of rampant New York crime rates, she dealt with substantial caseloads including shoplifting, police brutality, and murder. In terms of serious felonies, Sotomayor said, “No matter how liberal I am, I am still outraged by crimes of violence,” especially for violent crime within the Hispanic community.
In her role as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, she took anti-government stances in numerous cases and was known for administering heavy sentences in criminal cases. In the notable case Silverman v. Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee, Inc., Sotomayor’s preliminary injunction against Major League Baseball barred it from executing a new collective bargaining agreement, thus putting a stop to the months-long 1994 baseball strike.
Elena Kagan (2010)
In 1987 Kagan clerked for Judge Abner J. Mikva on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and a year later clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Supreme Court. As a lawyer for the D.C. firm Williams & Connolly, Kagan worked on five lawsuits rooted in issues of the First Amendment and media law. In the early 1990s, she took a job as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where she published an influential law review article in which she argued that the SCOTUS should investigate governmental motives when dealing with cases concerning the First Amendment. Two years after she got her assistant professorship, Joe Biden appointed her as special counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she played a part in the confirmation hearings of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Neil Gorsuch (2017)
After completing a judicial clerkship for SCOTUS Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy, Gorsuch practiced commercial law at Kellogg Huber, where he worked on securities fraud, antitrust, and contracts cases. In the case of Dura Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v Broudo, Gorsuch communicated that he believed that securities fraud litigation is burdensome to the economy.
He also worked as principal deputy to Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum at the U.S. Department of Justice, where he worked on civil litigation cases, as well as terror litigation related to President Bush’s War on Terror. Generally, Gorsuch is a constitutional originalist, which is to say that he believes that the constitution should be deciphered as it was originally written.
Brett Kavanaugh (2018)
In his early years in law, Kavanaugh worked as a clerk for judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Third and Ninth Circuits. In the early 1990s, he completed a year-long fellowship with U.S. solicitor general at the time, Ken Starr, with whom he returned to work years later as an associate counselor in the Office of the Independent Counsel. In this role, Kavanaugh helmed the writing of the 1998 Starr Report to Congress, which detailed the scandal involving Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
In late 2000, Kavanaugh became part of George W. Bush’s legal team that strove to stop the recount of Florida ballots in the controversial 2000 presidential election between Bush and Al Gore. From 2003 to 06, he worked as assistant to President George W. Bush and White House Staff Secretary.
Amy Coney Barrett (2020)
After graduating from Notre Dame, Barrett clerked for Judge Laurence H. Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit from 1997 to 1998, and then for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia the following year. When that clerkship ended in 1999, Barrett went into private practice, joining the D.C. law firm Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin. In 2001, she joined George Washington University Law School as an adjunct professor, and then, in 2002, she returned to her alma mater Notre Dame where she was eventually named a Professor of Law in 2010.
Ketanji Brown Jackson (2022)
Fresh out of Harvard Law School, Jackson held three clerkships: one for the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, another for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and then—after a year in private practice (at the same private law firm where Barrett worked)—for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, whose seat she is filling.
Jackson then returned to private practice from 2000 to 2003, working at Goodwin Procter in Boston and at what is now known as Feinberg Rozen in New York. In the two years that followed, she became an assistant special counsel to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and then, from 2005 to 2007, a federal public defender in Washington D.C., handling cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. From 2007 to 2010, Jackson worked as an appellate specialist at Morrison & Foerster in Washington D.C.