WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson is returning to the Senate for a third day of hearings as Republicans try to paint her as soft on crime and Democrats herald the historic nature of her nomination to become the first Black woman on the high court.
In Tuesday’s marathon hearing, Republicans aggressively questioned Jackson on the sentences she has handed down to sex offenders in her nine years as a federal judge, her advocacy on behalf of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, her thoughts on critical race theory and even her religious views. At one point, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas read from children’s books that he said are taught at her teenage daughter’s school.
Several GOP senators grilled Jackson on her child pornography sentences, arguing they were lighter than federal guidelines recommend. She said she based the sentences on many factors, not just the guidelines, and said some of the cases had given her nightmares.
Could her rulings have endangered children? “As a mother and a judge,” she said, “nothing could be further from the truth.”
In what Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., described as “a trial by ordeal,” Jackson spent her first day of hearings answering GOP concerns and highlighting her empathetic style on the bench. The committee’s Republicans, several of whom have their eyes on the presidency, tried to brand her — and Democrats in general — as soft on crime, an emerging theme in GOP midterm election campaigns.
Jackson told the committee that her brother and two uncles served as police officers, and that “crime and the effect on the community, and the need for law enforcement — those are not abstract concepts or political slogans to me.”
Wednesday’s hearing is the second day of questioning, and the third day of hearings, after Jackson and the 22 members of the panel gave opening statements on Monday. On Thursday, the committee will hear from legal experts before an eventual vote to move her nomination to the Senate floor.
President Joe 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. Jackson would be the third Black justice, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, and the sixth woman.
Barring unexpected developments, Democrats who control the Senate by the slimmest of margins hope to wrap up Jackson’s confirmation before Easter, though Breyer is not leaving until the current session ends this summer.
Jackson said the potential to be the first Black woman on the court is “extremely meaningful” and that she had received many letters from young girls. Her nomination also “supports public confidence in the judiciary,” Jackson said.
Democrats have been full of praise for Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, noting that she would not only be the first Black woman but also the first public defender on the court, and the first with experience representing indigent criminal defendants since Marshall.
Republicans praised that experience, too, but also questioned it, focusing in particular on work she did roughly 15 years ago representing detainees at the U.S. facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Jackson said public defenders don’t pick their clients and are “standing up for the constitutional value of representation.” She said she continued to represent one client in private practice because her firm happened to be assigned his case.
Picking up on a thread started by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and amplified by the Republican National Committee in fundraising emails, Cruz questioned Jackson on her sentences for child pornographers, at one point bringing out a large poster board and circling sentences he said he found egregious.
Jackson defended her decisions by saying she takes into account not only sentencing guidelines but also the stories of the victims, the nature of the offenses and the defendants’ histories.
“A judge is not playing a numbers game,” she said. “A judge is looking at all of these different factors.”
Cruz, Hawley and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., are potential 2024 presidential candidates, and their rounds of questioning were some of the most combative, hitting on issues that are popular with the GOP base. Cruz asked her about critical race theory, a premise that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions. Jackson said the idea doesn’t come up in her work as a judge, and it “wouldn’t be something I would rely on” if confirmed.
The Texas senator also questioned her about her daughter’s private school in Washington, where she sits on the board, bringing up a book called “Antiracist Baby” that he said was taught to younger children at the school.
“Do you agree with this book that is being taught for kids that babies are racist?” Cruz asked.
Visibly annoyed, Jackson took a long pause. She said no children should be made to feel they are racists, victims or oppressors. “I don’t believe in any of that,” she said.
Asked about abortion, Jackson readily agreed with comments that conservative Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh made about two landmark cases when they were up for confirmation. “Roe and Casey are the settled law of the Supreme Court concerning the right to terminate a woman’s pregnancy. They have established a framework that the court has reaffirmed,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s answers bypassed a key point: The court right now is weighing whether to overrule those cases that affirm a nationwide right to abortion.
Near the end of the day, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked Jackson when life begins. She told him that she didn’t know, and added, without elaborating, “I have a religious view that I set aside when I am ruling on cases.”