Verdict on Ketanji: ‘Supreme’-ly heartless

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While running for the Presidency in 2020 Joe Biden promised to appoint the first black, female Supreme Court justice. In January when a place opened up on the court, he repeated that pledge. To only murmurs of concern. Is this really how things have to work in America?

Last week the president announced that he was going to put forward Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson for the lifetime appointment. Democrats were thrilled. Most Republicans saw a trap and kept away. Almost no one dug any deeper. But they should.

Because if they did, they would find out a number of things. Not just that there are far better qualified candidates, including better qualified black female candidates. But that Jackson’s own career shows she is unsuitable for the role.

It is now eight years ago since Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 crashed into the sea, killing all 239 people on board. Among them was one American man, Philip Wood, a 50-year-old IBM executive from Texas.

In the traumatic months after the crash, Wood’s family sought to gain justice for their family in the courts. They imagined the American court system would help them. They were wrong.

Philip Wood
Pictured is Philip Wood, a passenger on Flight 370.
Handout / People’s Magazine
Airplane flap
The flap was found in June by residents on Pemba Island off the coast of Tanzania and officials had previously said it was highly likely to have come from flight MH370.

They first brought their case against Malaysian Airlines and Boeing in the state court of Illinois. But as they began to go through the slow grind of the US justice system they found themselves completely abandoned. The case ended up being bundled up with a set of other cases in something called an MDL (multi-district litigation) which ended up going to DC. And it was there that Judge Ketanji Jackson was assigned to the case.

By this stage, three years after the death of their father, the family thought they had a ray of light. As Wood’s eldest son told me this week, “The lawyers thought, just like I’m sure Biden and the Democrats think, that oh, this is a great thing. Here’s a female. She’s a public defender.” She might want to stand up for “the little guy.”

Far from it. As the family were to discover, Jackson was on the side of big business.

From the get-go, Judge Jackson treated the case with indifference and a sloppy lack of attention, Wood claims. Lawyers said they expected judgment to take a few months. More than 13 months went by before a judgment came. It was filled with flaws. First, according to the family, it was not just terse, but largely copy-and-pasted from the brief Jackson had been given. She dismissed the family’s case, saying that it was better tried in Malaysia rather than America. Perhaps knowing how unpopular it could be, she released her judgment just before Thanksgiving, when the story would be buried.

“The United States’ strong public interest in securing a legal remedy for its citizens,” Jackson wrote, “is nonetheless overshadowed by Malaysia’s overwhelming interest in the resolution of claims concerning this national disaster.”

Indian Ocean
HMAS Success scans the southern Indian Ocean, as a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion flies over, while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
AP Photo / Rob Griffith

Horrible precedent

From her dismissive judgment, the family had no doubt where the judge’s sympathies lay. Nor that she was playing a careful political game of her own as she looked for a seat on the Supreme Court.

“She knew exactly what she was doing,” says Nick Wood, now 32. “She waited until the 2018 election to release a very pro-business ruling, which granted the defense’s request for a dismissal of our case.”

According to Woods, she addressed none of the underlying issues, and simply barred an American family from having the right to pursue justice through the American courts for the loss of an American citizen. Having spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars trying to seek justice (money they would not have had if their father had not taken out a life insurance policy), Judge Jackson’s ruling meant they had to resort to the Malaysian courts if they ever wanted to get a hearing. A fine prospect.

Joe Biden and Ketanji Brown Jackson
Ketanji Brown Jackson, delivers brief remarks as his nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court on February 25, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The consequence of Jackson’s judgment may not be limited to one family. Pending a higher court review, her judgment can be seen as precedent and so reflects on any other American seeking justice for the loss or injury of a loved one abroad.

This means that any other American family who suffered as the Wood family did will find themselves in exactly the same position. Of being essentially helpless in the eyes of the law. The family are understandably bitter.

Contemplating Jackson heading to the highest court in the land, Nick Wood said this week “Everything that she stands for and exists for, I believe, is a lie. She has the right skin color, according to President Biden’s requirements. She has the right sounding name. She went to the right schools.”

Joe Biden
Many people believe Biden choose Jackson because of her skin color.
Getty Images

She is the perfect example of the nepotistic “swamp,” according to Wood. “I’ll never be able to find out what happened to my father, since she didn’t even grant us US-style discovery. It’s really a travesty. It shouldn’t be that an American family suing an American company in the American court is denied access to its own system of justice. That’s not right. And it sets a horrible precedent for all of us in the United States, for like the average person trying to get justice for a loved one who was killed.”

“She’s either lazy, calculating, or both,” Wood says. “A political ­opportunist.”

Did she ever express any sympathy for the family, I wonder? “No, absolutely not. Why would she? Who are we to her? You know, we’re just a stepping stone to her ultimate goal. We have been treated with disdain.”

There are at least two other prominent black female justices whom the still-grieving Wood points out are much better qualified for the role on the Supreme Court. But Jackson going to the highest court would be hard for the family to swallow.

“I don’t think she’s an idiot. To the contrary, I think she’s very cunning. I just think she happens to be heartless. And, to be completely honest, evil, that she would do this to a family.”

Perhaps when Judge Jackson goes into her hearings, she could be questioned on this. Not the credentials that Biden thinks she has by accident of her birth. But the credentials of her actual career, her track record, and the victims she has left behind.

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