WASHINGTON — The first full day of questions for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson delved quickly into some of the big ones, a grueling marathon of debate around President Joe Biden’s historic pick.
What is the judge’s “judicial philosophy”? What are her views on “court packing,” the idea of adding more justices to the court?
And what’s her response to claims by Republican Sen. Josh Hawley that she has been too lenient in sentencing child pornography offenders and is generally soft on crime?
Jackson is making history as the first Black woman nominated for the court, which once upheld racial segregation in America and for 233 years has been filled mainly with white men.
Biden tapped the 51-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, one of her mentors. Democrats have the potential votes in the 50-50 Senate to confirm Jackson, even if all Republicans line up opposed, and her nomination is on track for a vote by Easter.
If confirmed, Jackson would also become the sixth woman justice in the court’s history and with three now serving “the closest we’ve ever come to gender equity,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Takeaways from the start of Tuesday’s first day of questioning in Jackson’s confirmation hearing:
‘STAY IN MY LANE’
With nearly a decade as a judge, and a lawyer who has worked in public and private practice, Jackson is undeniably well qualified to be a justice on the Supreme Court, senators say.
The question, then, is what is her judicial philosophy — will she be an activist judge, trying to set policy, or one who adheres to strict interpretations of the law?
“I am trying, in every case, to stay in my lane,” Jackson told the senators.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., launched the probe of the judge’s views as the first question in Tuesday’s hearing, providing Jackson an opportunity to lay out her approach to the law.
Jackson told the senators she starts from a “neutral” position and approaches each case “without fear or favor.” She said she tries to listen to all sides and then apply the law.
SOFT ON CRIME?
Much the way Southern senators sought to portray the first Black nominee to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, as soft on crime 55 years ago, some Republican senators see Jackson’s treatment of criminal defendants as one of their strongest arguments against her.
Hawley, R-Mo., set the tone even before the hearings began, raising concerns that Jackson gave child pornography defendants lighter sentences than required.
On Tuesday, Jackson said flatly: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The mother of two daughters told the senators how she has pored through the graphic evidence of child pornography cases in her courtroom and faced the defendants before her.
“These are some of the most difficult cases a judge has to deal with,” she told them.
She later spoke of her work as a federal public defender — the first to be nominated to the court — ensuring due process for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And she also spoke more personally about her own family’s work in law enforcement, and knowing what it’s like to worry about their safety.
“These are not abstract concepts or political slogans to me,” she said.
Fact checkers have said Hawley is selectively choosing the cases, including many in which prosecutors in fact also sought more lenient sentences than federal sentencing guidelines. Republicans led by Hawley see this as some of their strongest arguments against the judge.
Jackson turned to the conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett as an example to follow on at least one subject — her views on Court packing.
The idea of adding justices to the Court is gaining traction among liberals who want to tip the balance of the court away from conservatives, who now have a 6-3 majority thanks in large part to Donald Trump, who as president picked three new justices.
Asked about her views on court packing, Jackson echoed Barrett, the Trump nominee who declined to weigh in on the idea when she appeared before the panel in 2020.
“My North Star is the consideration of the proper role of a judge,” Jackson told senators.
“I agree with Justice Barrett,” she told them. “Judges should not be speaking to political issues.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the panel, tried again when it was his turn for questioning, but he got no different answer.
GOD, KAVANAUGH AND GOP GRIEVANCE
Unable to stop Jackson’s confirmation by the 50-50 Senate, Republicans at least want to show Americans they gave the judge a fair hearing — unlike the explosive session over Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination when he was accused by Democrats of sexual assault as a teenager, charges he strongly denied.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina dredged up decades-old grievances over the way conservative nominees have been treated, back to Ronald Reagan’s failed nomination of Robert Bork.
In one heated exchange, he asked Jackson deeply personal questions about her Protestant faith.
“As you know, there’s no religious test in the Constitution,” Jackson told the senator.
“Well, how would you feel if a senator up here said of your faith that ‘the dogma lives loudly within you’?” Graham said at one point.
The GOP senator was reviving Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s remarks about Barrett’s conservative Catholic beliefs.
Graham called it the kind of double standard that portrays conservatives as “some kind of weirdo.”
He said, “We’re tired of it.”
It’s taken 233 years to arrive at this moment, with the first Black woman nominated to be a justice on the Supreme Court.
Grassley asked if Jackson still believed in a speech she once delivered evoking the Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream that children would be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.
Her own story is part of that history. She told the senators about how one generation could go from the racially segregated schools her parents attended in Florida to her sitting before the Senate nominated to the high court.
“The fact that you can come that far was, to me, a testament to the hope and the promise of this country, the greatness of America,” she said.
By Lisa Mascaro, AP Congressional Correspondent