WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate Judiciary Committee opened Supreme Court confirmation hearings Monday, with Republicans promising pointed questions for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and Democrats full of praise for the first Black woman nominated for the nation’s highest court.
Jackson, 51, was to give her opening statement later Monday and answer questions on Tuesday and Wednesday from the panel’s 11 Democratic and 11 Republican senators.
Barring a significant misstep by the 51-year-old Jackson, a federal judge for the past nine years, Democrats who control the Senate by the slimmest of margins intend to wrap up her confirmation before Easter. She would be the third Black justice, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, as well as the first Black woman on the high court.
“It’s not easy being the first. Often, you have to be the best, in some ways the bravest,” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the committee chairman, said in support shortly after the proceedings began.
Democrats sought to preemptively rebut Republican criticism of her record on criminal matters as a judge and before that, as a federal public defender and a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
“Judge Jackson is not anti-law enforcement. She’s not soft on crime,” Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., said, noting that members of Jackson’s family have worked in law enforcement.
The committee’s senior Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, promised Republicans would “ask tough questions about Judge Jackson’s judicial philosophy,” without turning the hearings into a ”spectacle.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., noted that Democrats had opposed some past Republican judicial nominees who were Black or Hispanic, and he said that he and his GOP colleagues wouldn’t be deterred from asking probing questions by Jackson’s race.
He said of some criticism from the left: “Bottom line here is, It’s about ‘We’re all racist if we ask hard questions.’ That’s not going to fly with us.”
Graham has voted for previous Democratic nominees for the Supreme Court and was one of three Republicans to support Jackson’s confirmation as an appellate judge last year. But he suggested he might vote against her this time.
Jackson’s testimony will give most Americans, as well as the Senate, their most extensive look yet at the Harvard-trained lawyer with a resume that includes two years as a federal public defender. That makes her the first nominee with significant criminal defense experience since Marshall.
Jackson will be introduced on Monday by Thomas B. Griffith, a retired judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Lisa M. Fairfax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.
Jackson appeared before the same committee last year, after President Joe Biden chose her to fill an opening on the federal appeals court in Washington, just down the hill from the Supreme Court.
The American Bar Association, which evaluates judicial nominees, on Friday gave Jackson’s its highest rating, unanimously “well qualified.”
Janette McCarthy Wallace, general counsel of the NAACP, said she is excited to see a Black woman on the verge of a high court seat.
“Representation matters,” Wallace said. “It’s critical to have diverse experience on the bench. It should reflect the rich cultural diversity of this country.”
It’s not yet clear how aggressively Republicans will go after Jackson, given that her confirmation would not alter the court’s 6-3 conservative majority.
Still, some Republicans have signaled they could use Jackson’s nomination to try to brand Democrats as soft on crime, an emerging theme in GOP midterm election campaigns. Biden has chosen several former public defenders for life-tenured judicial posts. In addition, Jackson served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency created by Congress to reduce disparity in federal prison sentences.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., highlighted one potential line of attack. “I’ve noticed an alarming pattern when it comes to Judge Jackson’s treatment of sex offenders, especially those preying on children,” Hawley wrote on Twitter last week in a thread that was echoed by the Republican National Committee. Hawley did not raise the issue when he questioned Jackson last year before voting against her appeals court confirmation.
The White House pushed back forcefully against the criticism as “toxic and weakly presented misinformation.” Sentencing expert Douglas Berman, an Ohio State law professor, wrote on his blog that Jackson’s record shows she is skeptical of the range of prison terms recommended for child pornography cases, “but so too were prosecutors in the majority of her cases and so too are district judges nationwide.”
Hawley is one of several committee Republicans, along with Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who are potential 2024 presidential candidates, and their aspirations may collide with other Republicans who would just as soon not pursue a scorched-earth approach to Jackson’s nomination.
Biden chose Jackson in February, fulfilling a campaign pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court for the first time in American history. She would take the seat of Justice Stephen Breyer, who announced in January that he would retire this summer after 28 years on the court.
Jackson once worked as a high court law clerk to Breyer early in her legal career.
Democrats are moving quickly to confirm Jackson, even though Breyer’s seat will not officially open until the summer. They have no votes to spare in a 50-50 Senate that they run by virtue of the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
But they are not moving as fast as Republicans did when they installed Amy Coney Barrett on the court little more than a month after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and days before the 2020 presidential election.
Barrett, the third of President Donald Trump’s high court picks, entrenched the court’s conservative majority when she took the place of the liberal Ginsburg.
Last year, Jackson won Senate confirmation by a 53-44 vote, with three Republicans supporting her. It’s not clear how many Republicans might vote for her this time.
Jackson is married to Patrick Johnson, a surgeon in Washington. They have two daughters, one in college and the other in high school. She is related by marriage to former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who also was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012. Ryan has voiced support for Jackson’s nomination.
Jackson has spoken about how her children have kept her in touch with reality, even as she has held a judge’s gavel since 2013. In the courtroom, she told an audience in Athens, Georgia, in 2017, “people listen and generally do what I tell them to do.”
At home, though, her daughters “make it very clear I know nothing, I should not tell them anything, much less give them any orders, that is, if they talk to me at all,” Jackson said.