As her historic campaign to join the Supreme Court strayed from high constitutional considerations to assaults on her intentions on the bench, federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson faced a storm of Republican inquiries regarding her sentencing of criminal defendants on Wednesday.
In her final day of Senate grilling, she claimed that as the Supreme Court’s first Black female justice, she would rule “without any agendas” and rejected Republican attempts to depict her as a soft on crime judge during her decade on the bench. Legal experts from both sides will weigh in on Thursday, the concluding day of four days of hearings.
Despite the fact that her approval appears to be all but certain — Democrats are pushing for a vote before Easter — Republicans continued to attack her record on Wednesday.
However, the Republican criticism was punctuated by effusive praise from Democrats and reflections on the historic nature of her nomination — none more riveting in the room than from New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who used his time not to ask questions but to tearfully speak and draw tears from Jackson.
When he looks at her, Booker, who is Black, says he sees “my ancestors and yours.” He added, “I know what it took for you to sit here in this seat.” “You’ve worked hard for this.”
Jackson was deafeningly quiet while Booker spoke, but tears streamed down her cheeks as her family sat behind her.
After receiving similar praise from Sen. Alex Padilla, the judge again burst into tears, telling the California Democrat that she hoped to be an influence because “I love this nation, because I love the law.”
Republican senators grilled her for more than 22 hours over two days about the sentences she has handed down to child pornography offenders during her nine years as a federal judge, her legal advocacy on behalf of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, her thoughts on critical race theory, and even her religious beliefs.
When asked if she would recuse herself from a matter involving affirmative action at Harvard University, where she now serves on the Board of Overseers, Jackson indicated she would. When Texas Senator Ted Cruz confronted her about it, she replied, “That’s my strategy.”
In the autumn, the court will hear challenges to the use of race in college admissions brought by Asian American candidates to Harvard, a private university, and the University of North Carolina, a public university. The court is presently planning to hear the lawsuits against the two institutions simultaneously, but it might split them and offer Jackson a chance to participate in one of the most contentious topics of the next term.
Republicans spent much of Wednesday, as they had Tuesday, focusing on her punishment, particularly the child pornography convictions. As the day progressed, tempers flared, culminating in Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin smashing down his gavel after Cruz refused to surrender when his time ran out while interrogating Jackson.
Cruz said, “You can hammer it as long as you want,” implying that all he needed was for Jackson to answer his question.
“You have to respect the rules at some point,” Durbin said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina quizzed Jackson about the penalty she feels is appropriate for persons convicted of child pornography in a new round of tough questions. Graham, like Cruz and others on the committee, claimed she was too generous with the felons. Graham repeatedly stopped her as she spoke; at one point, he suggested the judges “throw their a— in jail!”
The emphasis on punishment was part of a wider attempt by the committee’s Republicans — including many prospective presidential contenders — to portray Jackson’s record and judicial philosophy as overly compassionate and lenient toward offenders who commit the most serious crimes. It also reflected a growing focus on crime in Republican midterm election campaigns.
Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina told Jackson that she appeared to be a “very nice person,” but that “there’s at least a level of empathy that enters into your treatment of a defendant that some might view as maybe beyond what some of us would be comfortable with, with respect to administering justice.”
Contrary to Democratic expectations, Jackson’s confirmation vote in the full Senate is unlikely to get much, if any, Republican support. Despite this, a number of Republicans have stated that she will most certainly be on the court. In a 50-50 Senate, Democrats may confirm her without any bipartisan backing because Vice President Kamala Harris can vote to break the tie.
Republicans were mischaracterizing Jackson’s judgments, according to Jackson, who was backed by committee Democrats. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she told the committee on Tuesday when asked if her decisions put children in danger.
Judge claims that she bases her punishments on a variety of criteria other than statutory standards. She said that sentencing is not a “numbers game,” adding that there are no obligatory terms for sex offenders and that the issue has sparked heated discussion.
She described some of the instances as “among the worst that I have seen,” giving her nightmares.
If approved, Jackson said she will rule “from a position of neutrality, to look closely at the facts and circumstances of every case without any agendas, without any attempt to push the law in one direction or the other,” as she has done as a federal judge.
“Crime and its influence on the community, and the necessity for law enforcement – those are not abstract notions or political slogans to me,” she told the committee, citing her brother and two uncles as police officers.
President Joe Biden nominated Jackson to the Supreme Court in February, fulfilling a campaign promise to choose a Black woman to the court. Justice Stephen Breyer, who announced in January that he will retire this summer after 28 years on the bench, would be replaced.
After Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, Jackson would be the third Black justice and the sixth woman on the Supreme Court. Her confirmation would keep the court’s existing conservative majority of 6-3. She would also be the court’s first former public defender and the first since Marshall to have represented destitute criminal defendants.
Cruz, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton were among the likely GOP presidential contenders who asked some of the most contentious questions throughout the hearings. All of them hit on subjects that are popular among the Republican base, such as assaults on critical race theory, which holds that racism is pervasive in the country’s institutions. The idea doesn’t come up in Jackson’s work as a judge, and if verified, it “wouldn’t be anything I would rely on.”
When asked about abortion, Jackson readily agreed with remarks made by conservative Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh during their nomination hearings. “Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Wade are the Supreme Court’s settled law on a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. “They’ve constructed a structure that the Supreme Court has maintained,” Jackson added.
The Supreme Court is now debating whether to overturn rulings that uphold a nationwide right to abortion.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., questioned Jackson when life starts at the close of Tuesday’s lengthy session. She said she didn’t know and then added, without going into detail, “I have a religious outlook that I put aside when I am judgment on cases.”
Democrats condemned Republicans’ questioning and applauded Jackson’s handling of it after Wednesday’s session.
“It’s a difficult pill for people who oppose her to embrace this sort of transformation in America,” Durbin told reporters.