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‘We have never had this moment before’: Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing

Committee members preview line of questioning for next two days

Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden's nominee to the Supreme Court, is sworn in before delivering her opening statement at her Senate confirmation hearing Monday.
Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden's nominee to the Supreme Court, is sworn in before delivering her opening statement at her Senate confirmation hearing Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson spent more than four hours Monday with her hands folded in front of her at the witness table, often smiling broadly as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee spoke in turn about the coming days of the confirmation hearing.

When she got the chance to speak, the large hearing room stayed nearly silent as Jackson described her path from daughter of public school teachers to the first Black woman to be nominated to the high court.

Jackson, 51, said her parents moved from Florida to Washington D.C. to leave behind segregation and experience new freedoms under the civil rights laws passed in the 1960s.

They gave her an African name that means “lovely one.” She worked on coloring books as her father studied law books to get a degree.

“My parents taught me that unlike the many barriers that they had to face growing up, my path was clear, so that if I worked hard, and I believed in myself, in America, I can do anything, or be anything, I wanted to be,” Jackson told the committee.

That path now puts her behind the witness table for another two days of questions from members of the Judiciary Committee, and on a path that appears likely to end in a historic confirmation as the first Black woman to become a Supreme Court justice and first justice who is a former public defender.

“During this hearing, I hope that you will see how much I love our country, and the Constitution and the rights that make us free,” Jackson said.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, the first Black man to serve on the committee, emoted over the moment, as did civil rights leaders and Black female lawmakers watching in the room. “This is not a normal day for America. We have never had this moment before,” Booker said.

Judicial approach

Jackson spoke of the challenges of juggling her career and motherhood — she has two daughters — and the high school debate coach who first took her to a competition at Harvard, where she would get her undergraduate and law degree.

And she gave a preview of some of her answers on her judicial philosophy, that judges have a limited role, can only hear cases that are properly presented to the court and must adhere to precedents.

“I have been a judge for nearly a decade now, and I take that responsibility and my duty to be independent very seriously,” Jackson said. “I decide cases from a neutral posture. I evaluate the facts, and I interpret and apply the law to the facts of the case before me, without fear or favor, consistent with my conditional oath.”

She spoke of how retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer, for whom she clerked,  exemplified integrity, civility and grace. “It is extremely humbling to be nominated for Justice Breyer and I know I could never fill his shoes,” Jackson said. “But if confirmed, I would hope to carry on his spirit.”

In a round of opening statements from senators that came before her opening remarks, both sides outlined their arguments and questions to come Tuesday and Wednesday in the same room.

Senators’ focus

Democrats will be focusing on her qualifications. Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said he responded to questions about whether Jackson would be politically biased with four words: look at the record.

“You have ruled for and against presidents and administrations of both parties, you’ve ruled for prosecutors and for defendants, you’ve ruled for workers and for their employers, and you’ve been faithful to the law, not to any person or political cause,” Durbin said.

From Republicans, there will be questions about why a liberal advocacy group backed her nomination, and a heavy dose of questions about Jackson’s view on how she does her job and the role of the court.

Republicans foreshadowed a number of specifics from Jackson’s work history. Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn he has questions about how her advocacy for some clients sometimes “has gone beyond the pale, and in some instances it appears that your advocacy has bled over into your decision-making process as a judge.”

“You’ve had some cases reversed, like all judges do, but some of them were particularly high profile when you ruled against a Republican administration,” Cornyn said.

Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn mentioned the most specific cultural war topics, such as mask mandates, transgender athletics and critical race theory — and whether she has a “hidden agenda” to help pack the court.

“These are answers that the American people need to know,” Blackburn said.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas was among the Republicans who spoke of the rising crime rates, and said “liberal judges are a big part of the problem.”

Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley has gained the most headlines from Republican members by raising concerns about Jackson’s history on child pornography cases. On Monday, he listed seven cases where Jackson handed down a more lenient sentence than federal guidelines would recommend.

Hawley said he thinks it’s important the committee hear from Jackson about that, since he hasn’t been satisfied by other explanations. “I’m not interested in trapping Judge Jackson, I’m not interested in trying to play gotcha, I’m interested in her answers,” Hawley said.

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Monday that Hawley’s allegations are “simply unfounded in fact, and indeed irresponsible,” highlighting that a key part of the role for Democrats will be playing defense against attacks.

“They’re unproven and unprovable. They’re simply false,” Blumenthal said. “One of the first lessons you learn as a prosecutor is never to promise a jury evidence that you don’t have. There is simply no evidence to support these attacks.”

Outside the hearing room, Durbin said that Democrats are ready to respond, and that Jackson was at a disadvantage and that she will be able to clear up some of the issues Republicans raised Monday. “She had to sit passively, calmly, and wait for her day tomorrow,” Durbin said of one issue raised by Blackburn. “So I trust that her response will be a good one.”

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