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Democrats, Republicans draw lines at opening of Ketanji Brown Jackson Supreme Court confirmation hearing

Democrats used statements to preempt GOP criticism

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court, is greeted by ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and chairman Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., as she arrives for her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Monday.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court, is greeted by ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and chairman Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., as she arrives for her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Ketanji Brown Jackson kicked off Monday with Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee using their opening statements to try to head off some Republican criticisms.

Chairman Richard J. Durbin of Illinois called it a “proud day for America,” which started out with no voting rights for women or minorities, and now Jackson could be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. “You, Judge Jackson, can be the first. It’s not easy being first. Often, you have to be the best and in some ways the bravest,” Durbin said. “Many are not prepared to face that kind of heat, that kind of scrutiny and the glare of the national spotlight.”

Durbin pointed out that Jackson’s background was one of excellence and integrity — and of someone who has been confirmed by the Senate three times for previous positions, including her role as an appeals court judge in Washington. And Durbin tried to swat away expected questions about her representation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay or other clients, and criticism that she is soft on crime or on sexual offenders. “These baseless charges are unfair,” Durbin said. “I’m confident the American people will see through these attacks and any other last minute attempts to derail your confirmation.”

Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, a former Judiciary chairman himself, said Jackson “is no judicial activist” and is not anti-law enforcement or soft on crime. Leahy said Jackson has been praised by conservative judges, as well as lawyers from both sides who appeared before her, and she comes from a law enforcement family.

Leahy added that her background as a public defender would be a first on the Supreme Court, and that it is “not a liability to the court, it’s a much-needed asset to the court.” A confirmation of Jackson “will bring us one step closer to having a Supreme Court that is more reflective of our nation,” Leahy said. “One where diversity, race, gender, background, education and experience allow all Americans to look to their court and see in its justices a reflection of the American people.”

The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said Republicans were looking for a thorough and exhaustive examination of Jackson’s background, and particularly her 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,” Grassley said. “I’ll be looking to see whether Judge Jackson is committed to the Constitution as originally understood.”

Grassley underscored that Republicans will focus on the difference between conservatives and liberals regarding how judges are supposed to interpret the law.

And he repeated an oft-used line from Republicans that the process would be “respectful,” to draw a distinction with how they feel Democrats acted during previous confirmation hearings under President Donald Trump such as Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. “We won’t try to turn this into a spectacle based on alleged process fouls,” Grassley said. “On that front, we’re off to a good start. Unlike the start to the Kavanaugh hearings, we didn’t have repeated, choreographed interruptions of Chairman Durbin during his opening statement, like Democrats interrupted me for more than an hour during my opening statement at the Kavanaugh hearing.”

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham used much of his 10-minute opening statement to criticize Democrats for previous confirmation hearings.

“You will not be vilified, you will not be attacked for your religious views, you will not be accused of doing something that you could not defend yourself against until it’s too late,” Graham said.

He called questions about her background as a federal district court judge when it comes to sex offenders “very fair game,” and said he wants to make sure Jackson would have the Supreme Court operate within the confines of its constitutional role.

“The hearings are going to be challenging for you, informative for the public and respectful from us,” Graham said.

The 22 members of the committee each get 10 minutes to make opening statements. Next, Jackson will be introduced by former Judge Thomas Griffith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a George W. Bush appointee, and Lisa Fairfax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

Then, Jackson will get an opportunity to make an opening statement.

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