WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson will face senators’ questions for the first time Tuesday as Democrats push to quickly confirm the only Black female justice in the court’s 233-year history.
Jackson, a federal appeals court judge, sat and silently listened to more than four hours of senators’ opening statements on Monday, the first of four days of Judiciary Committee hearings on her nomination. As senators begin 30-minute rounds of grilling on Tuesday, she will respond to their specific points, including charges by some Republicans that she has been too lenient in sentencing on criminal matters.
In her own 12-minute statement, Jackson didn’t mention specific cases but told the committee that she would “apply the laws to the facts of the case before me, without fear or favor, consistent with my judicial oath,” if she were to be confirmed.
Jackson, 51, thanked God and professed love for “our country and the Constitution.” She stressed that she has been independent, deciding cases “from a neutral posture” in her nine years as a federal judge.
While Republicans promised pointed questions, Democrats were full of praise for President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee. Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin said that to be first, “often, you have to be the best, in some ways the bravest.”
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 after 28 years on the court.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, spoke emotionally about the “joy” he felt about her historic nomination and acknowledged her family’s pride. Booker, who is Black, said the white men who have sat on the Supreme Court for two centuries were “extraordinary patriots who helped shape this country” but that many people could have never dreamed of sitting on the court.
Jackson would be the third Black justice, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, and the sixth woman.
“When the next generation behind us looks at the highest courts in the land, this ideal will be made more real,” Booker said.
Barring unexpected developments, Democrats who control the Senate by the slimmest of margins hope to wrap up Jackson’s confirmation before Easter, even though Breyer is not leaving the court until after the current session ends this summer. Democratic leaders are hoping for some Republican support, but can confirm her with the support of only Democrats in the 50-50 Senate as Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.
In the opening statements, Democrats on the Judiciary panel sought to preemptively rebut Republican criticism of Jackson’s record on criminal matters as a judge and before that as a federal public defender and a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency created by Congress to reduce disparity in federal prison sentences.
Jackson “is not anti-law enforcement” and is not “soft on crime,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said, noting that members of Jackson’s family have worked in law enforcement and that she has support from some national police organizations. “Judge Jackson is no judicial activist.”
The committee’s senior Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, promised Republicans would “ask tough questions about Jackson’s judicial philosophy,” without turning the hearings into a “spectacle.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, 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 by Jackson’s race from asking probing questions.
Graham said of some criticism from the left: “It’s about, ‘We’re all racist if we ask hard questions.’ That’s not going to fly with us.”
Graham was one of three Republicans to support Jackson’s confirmation, 53-44, as an appellate judge last year. But he has indicated over the past several weeks that he is unlikely to vote for her again.
Even though few Republicans are likely to vote for her, most GOP senators did not aggressively criticize Jackson, whose confirmation would not change the court’s 6-3 conservative majority. Several Republicans used their time to denounce Senate Democrats instead of Jackson’s record.
Republicans are trying to use her nomination 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.
With Jackson taking notes, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, said in his opening statement that his research showed that she had a pattern of issuing lower sentences in child pornography cases, repeating comments he wrote in a Twitter thread last week. The Republican National Committee echoed his claims in blast messages to supporters.
The White House, along with several Democrats at the hearing, has rejected Hawley’s criticism as “toxic and weakly presented misinformation.” Former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who is guiding Jackson through the Senate process, told reporters afterward that “she will be the one to counter many of those questions” on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Hawley is one of several committee Republicans, along with 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 prefer not to pursue a scorched-earth approach to Jackson’s nomination.
Members of the Judiciary panel are already familiar with Jackson, who appeared before them last year after Biden chose her to fill an opening on the federal appeals court in Washington. She was also vetted by the committee and confirmed by the Senate as a district court judge under President Barack Obama and to her post on the sentencing commission.
Jackson expressed her thanks and love to her husband, Patrick Jackson, a surgeon in Washington who wore socks with an image of George Washington and occasionally wiped away tears. Their two daughters, one in college and the other in high school, also attended, as did Jackson’s parents and in-laws.
While the focus was on the Senate hearings, the Supreme Court itself was in session Monday, but one chair was empty. Thomas, 73, the longest-serving justice now on the court, was in the hospital being treated for an infection. He does not have COVID-19, the court said in a statement.
Story by Mary Clare Jalonick and Mark Sherman. Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Jessica Gresko, Colleen Long, Kevin Freking and Aaron Morrison contributed to this report.