In the first of four days of scheduled hearings to discuss the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee revealed that their treatment of Jackson would break along partisan lines, with Democrats highlighting her qualifications and Republicans raising questions about her record.
Currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Jackson is the first Black woman, and only the third Black person overall, to be tapped for a seat on the nation’s highest court.
The first day of hearings consisted of the roughly twenty members of the committee delivering opening statements, as did Jackson herself. Some lawmakers used those statements to praise Jackson or to make broad statements about their feelings about the role of the Supreme Court in U.S. society. Others used their time to telegraph the sort of questions they will ask Jackson during the second and third days of hearings.
The hearing Monday, which lasted nearly five hours, was merely a warm-up. On Tuesday, each member will get 30 minutes to question the nominee, in a process expected to last from morning until evening.
The most senior members on the committee, on both sides of the aisle, made sure to praise Jackson’s service as a judge, which began with her confirmation in 2013 to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She has also served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission; worked as a public defender; clerked for more senior judges, including current Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, whom she has been designated to replace; and worked in private practice.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat, used his opening statement to point out the historic nature of her nomination.
“In its more than 230 years, the Court has had 115 justices,” he said. “One hundred and eight have been white men. Just two justices have been men of color. Only five women have served on the Court — and just one woman of color. Not a single justice has been a Black woman. You, Judge Jackson, can be the first.”
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the Senate’s longest-serving member, noted that he has participated in the confirmation of 20 other Supreme Court justices in his tenure, saying, “In Judge Jackson, I have found a distinguished nominee with an unassailable record that merits our respect, regardless of party.”
Leahy added, “Despite all the darkness in the world and the political brinksmanship that has unfortunately become a hallmark of Congress in recent years, your nomination fills me with hope — hope for the Court, hope for the rule of law, hope for the country.”
Senator Chuck Grassley, the most senior Republican on the panel, pledged to “conduct a thorough, exhaustive examination of Judge Jackson’s record and views.”
Members of his party, he said, will “ask tough questions about Judge Jackson’s judicial philosophy. In any Supreme Court nomination, the most important thing we look for is the nominee’s view of the law, judicial philosophy and view on the role of a judge. I’ll be looking to see whether Judge Jackson is committed to the Constitution as originally understood.”
Republican Senator Lindsay Graham promised that the hearings would be “challenging” for Jackson. However, he spent much of his time criticizing Democrats’ treatment of recent Supreme Court justices nominated by Republicans, specifically current Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose hearing in 2018 was marked by allegations of sexual assault decades in the past.
Pledging that members of his party would not personalize the hearings, he added, “You’re the beneficiary of Republican nominees having their lives turned upside down.”
Likely topics of questioning
Through their opening statements, Republicans on the panel signaled some of the areas of questioning that Jackson will likely face. Some were fairly general promises to probe her view of the proper role of the judiciary in the formation of public policy. Others were more specific.
Republican Senator John Cornyn said that he would raise the issue of Jackson’s work defending terrorism suspects who were, at the time, detained at the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Jackson’s representation of defendants there was part of her work as a federal public defender.
“As someone who has deep respect for the adversarial system of justice, I understand the importance of zealous advocacy,” Cornyn said. “But it appears that sometimes this zealous advocacy has gone beyond the pale. And in some instances, it appears that your advocacy has bled over into your decision-making process as a judge.”
Jackson and her supporters have pointed out that not all of the four Guantanamo detainees she was assigned to represent while serving as a federal public defender were even charged with crimes. Those who were charged eventually had those charges dropped. All four were eventually released.
Child pornography decisions
In the days leading up to the hearing, Republican Senator Josh Hawley had tweeted out accusations that in her judicial decisions, Jackson had a record of being “soft” on child pornography defendants.
Hawley’s claims faced serious pushback in the media, even from opponents of Jackson’s nomination. Many, including conservative attorney and former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, claimed that he was misrepresenting Jackson’s record. Writing in The National Review, McCarthy called the claims “meritless to the point of demagoguery.”
Nevertheless, Hawley on Monday raised the issue in his opening remarks, saying he would address seven separate cases in which Jackson issued rulings. “What concerns me is that in every case, in each of these seven, Judge Jackson handed down a lenient sentence that was below what the federal guidelines recommended and below what the prosecutors requested.”
In remarks last week meant to blunt Hawley’s criticism, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “In the vast majority of cases involving child sex crimes broadly, the sentences Judge Jackson imposed were consistent with or above what the government or U.S. probation recommended.”
After several hours of opening statements by senators, Jackson was allowed to deliver her own remarks, which she prefaced by noting that her nomination was a great honor and by introducing her extended family, who were in attendance at the hearing.
“If I am confirmed, I commit to you that I will work productively to support and defend the Constitution and the grand experiment of American democracy that has endured over these past 246 years,” Jackson said.
“During this hearing, I hope that you will see how much I love our country and the Constitution, and the rights that make us free,” she continued.
Jackson invoked the name of Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to be appointed to a federal judgeship.
“Like Judge Motley, I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building — ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ — are a reality and not just an ideal,” Jackson said. “Thank you for this historic chance to join the highest Court, to work with brilliant colleagues, to inspire future generations, and to ensure liberty and justice for all.”