On day one of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Democrats and Republicans could agree on one thing: her historic nomination comes at a critical moment for the U.S. Supreme Court.
In remark after remark during opening statements, Senators on the Judiciary Committee stressed that the high court is at a pivotal moment in its history. Republican Senators repeatedly raised alarm over what they described as attacks on the high court’s legitimacy, while Democrats highlighted coming decisions on hot-button political topics, including access to abortion.
Jackson would be the first Black woman to be confirmed to the nation’s highest court, and Senators from both parties applauded the historic nature of her nomination. But the first day of her hearings was in a large part consumed with Republican Senators expressing raw resentment towards their Democratic colleagues for how previous Supreme Court hearings were handled, at times overshadowing discussions of the qualifications of the judge sitting before them.
In his opening remarks, for example, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, barely mentioned Jackson’s professional experience, instead using his allotted ten minutes to decry how Democrats handled previous confirmation hearings dating back to Robert Bork, who was nominated in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan but ultimately rejected by the Senate. Several GOP Senators also criticized calls from progressive groups to expand the number of seats on the court. “We must protect the court,” Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, said. “We lose the ability to protect the court if we allow arguments to take root that are focused on expanding that and turning the court into a political body.”
Jackson is appearing before the Judiciary Committee after three extraordinarily contentious Supreme Court confirmations during Donald Trump’s presidency, which secured the court’s 6-3 conservative majority that will likely determine landmark decisions in the following months. Justice Neil Gorsuch was confirmed after a seat on the court was held open by Republicans for 293 days during an election year; Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed over Democratic objections after he faced serious allegations of sexual assault; Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed on the closest date to a presidential election in U.S. history.
“Most of us couldn’t go back to our offices during Kavanaugh without getting spit on,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said, looking to his Democratic colleagues. “I hope that doesn’t happen to y’all. I don’t think it will.”
By September 2021, public approval of the Supreme Court was at its lowest point in Gallup’s polling going back more than 20 years, at 40%. And the high court is poised to reshape key elements of American society in the coming months, including deciding major cases on abortion access, gun rights and the separation of church and state. More crucial cases will come next term—including one that could decide the fate of affirmative action in higher education—and many Senators acknowledged the power Jackson could wield on these issues and others if she is confirmed.
“I urge my colleagues to remember [how] the court must consider the effect of its actions on people’s lives,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota. “How it must be able to see the real people at the other end of the rulings. Like Americans who are one Supreme Court decision away from losing their health insurance, or one court decision away from the ability to make their own health care.”
While many Senators on the committee spent their opening statements focused on veiled complaints about the other party, they will dig into Jackson’s qualifications and record in the coming days when they begin the question portion of the hearing. Each GOP Senator promised Jackson a respectful process, but a couple of them took a more combative tone on Monday, previewing attacks and questions to come. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn both repeated allegations Hawley had raised on Twitter last week that Jackson issued lighter sentences to child pornography offenders than what the federal guidelines recommended. (When asked for comment last week, the White House said the allegation “relies on taking cherry-picked elements of her record out of context – and it buckles under the lightest scrutiny.”)
Senators from both parties repeatedly cited Jackson’s record on criminal justice, with Republicans expressing concern and Democrats deflecting against anticipated attacks that her record as a federal public defender from 2005-2007 makes her “soft on crime.”
“No, Judge Jackson is not ‘soft on crime,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont. “Judge Jackson’s background here is an asset to the Court, not a liability.” Democratic Senators also repeatedly cited Jackson’s endorsements by the National Fraternal Order of Police, dozens of top law enforcement officials and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Meanwhile Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, said that while he has “deep respect for the adversarial system of justice” and understands “the importance of zealous advocacy,” he believes it appears that “sometimes this zealous advocacy has gone beyond the pale.”
Most Senators congratulated Jackson on the historic nature of her nomination, and as Jackson was sworn in for her own opening statement—with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, old friends, mentors, and family members including her two daughters looking on—the excitement in the room was palpable.
“I stand on the shoulders of so many who have come before me,” Jackson told the committee. “I have dedicated my career to ensuring the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building, ‘equal justice under law’, are a reality and not just an ideal.”
Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey and one of only three sitting Black Senators, was brought close to tears discussing a story he said Jackson told him about her daughter writing former President Barack Obama years ago asking him to appoint her to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I want to tell your daughter right now,” he said, “that that dream of hers is so close to being a reality.”
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