WASHINGTON — Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson stressed Monday “my duty to be independent” if confirmed as the first black woman on the Supreme Court, as Republican senators almost immediately began previewing lines of attack accusing her of being soft on the crime.
On the first day of her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Jackson sat mostly in silence, listening to 22 senators talk at length about what they wanted in a candidate. Race has not always been an unspoken subtext, as Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, suggested tough questions would be criticized as racism.
“‘We’re all racists if we ask tough questions’ isn’t going to fly with us,” Mr Graham said.
More than four hours into the hearing, Judge Jackson, 51, cleared her throat, turned on her microphone and spoke for herself.
“If confirmed, I pledge to work productively to uphold and defend the Constitution and this great experiment in American democracy that has endured for these past 246 years,” said Judge Jackson, who currently sits at the United States Court of Appeals. for the District of Columbia Circuit, said in an opening speech that lasted about 13 minutes.
“I have been a judge for almost a decade now, and I take that responsibility and my duty of independence very seriously,” she said. “I decide cases from a neutral position. I assess the facts and interpret and apply the law to the facts of the case before me without fear or favor, in accordance with my judicial oath.
At the start of the day, some Democrats in the room were celebrating his nomination.
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who played no official role in the proceedings, raised her phone to record as Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey spoke of the pure joy he felt at a time when he called, simply, “not a normal day for America.
Among Republicans, there were the first flashes of kindness: Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s top Republican, pulled out a chair for Judge Jackson just before the hearing began.
But that tone quickly faded as Republicans stressed they would not personally attack Judge Jackson, while accusing her of being soft on child sex abuse defendants and sex offenders. Several also suggested, without evidence, that she was aligned with progressive groups who want to add justices to the Supreme Court.
Democrats saw the offensive coming and tried to anticipate criticism in their prepared remarks.
“These baseless accusations are unjust,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, chairman of the committee, adding, “They run counter to promises made by my colleagues that they would approach your nomination with civility and respect.”
The approval of Judge Jackson by the Senate would not change the ideological balance of the court. She is a former clerk to Justice Stephen G. Breyer, whose place she would fill on the court’s three-member liberal wing when he retires at the end of the current term. An examination of a substantial sample of Judge Jackson’s nearly 500 legal opinions suggests that she would be about as liberal as Judge Breyer.
With Judge Jackson likely to be confirmed, either with one or two Republican swing votes or with only Democratic votes, Republicans should use the hearings to draw public attention to cultural issues that may be hot spots. flash during the midterm elections.
Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, anticipated an effort by her party to use the hearings as a venue to attack Judge Jackson and Democrats on such issues.
At one point, Ms Blackburn spoke of ‘so-called white privilege’ before aloud asking Judge Jackson if it was her hidden agenda to incorporate critical race theory into the legal system. (There is no evidence to suggest this is the case.)
When she finally got to speak, Judge Jackson seemed to insulate herself from Republican attempts to portray her as a leftist who might be going too far.
“I know that my role as a judge is limited, that the Constitution only gives me the power to decide cases and controversies that are properly presented,” Judge Jackson said, “and I know that my judicial role is still limited by scrupulous respect for precedent.”
In an apparent effort to justify tough questions in the coming days, several Republicans, including Mr. Graham, have seized on Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s explosive confirmation hearings in 2018 as an example of unfair treatment of a court nominee. supreme, saying Judge Jackson already enjoys more respect and can expect a more civil tone in four days of hearings this week.
During his confirmation hearings, Judge Kavanaugh was accused by Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist, of sexual assault decades ago when they were both high school students in suburban Washington.
“There won’t be this constant attack on you like Justice Kavanaugh and other conservative judicial appointments,” said Mr Graham, who said he backed the nomination of another candidate, Justice J Michelle Childs, rather than Judge Jackson.
“You are the beneficiary of Republican candidates who have their lives turned upside down, and it hasn’t worked out,” he added.
He made no mention of President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination fight for Merrick B. Garland. Republicans even refused to grant him a hearing, waiting to see who would win the presidential election.
Mr. Garland is now Attorney General.
In their individual statements, the 11 Republicans on the committee also focused on the idea that Judge Jackson’s past work as a public defender showed she was soft on crime and reflected a broader law enforcement effort. Biden administration to install judges who favor mediation. criminal penalties. Justice Jackson, who if confirmed would be the only Supreme Court justice with experience as a public defender, has already been confirmed by the Senate three times, a record she pointed to on Monday. .
On Monday, Sen. Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, revived the claims in his opening statement accusing Judge Jackson of giving lenient sentences to child sex abuse defendants. It’s a criticism that experts say is misleading and ignores a debate within the legal community about mandatory sentencing policies.
“All my professional experiences, including my work as a public defender and trial judge, have instilled in me the importance of letting each litigant know that the judge in their case has heard them, whether their arguments prevail or not. in court,” Judge Jackson said.
Judge Jackson told the committee that she was born out of the pride of two public school teachers who gave her an African name that meant “beautiful.”
The public witness section seated behind her was packed with black supporters, including White House officials, elected officials, family members and a handful of lawyers. Only a few wore masks and the atmosphere was festive.
To Judge Jackson’s immediate right sat Dana Remus, the White House attorney, who had led her through near-daily prep sessions, often referred to as murder councils, as the hearings drew closer. Ms. Remus was seated next to former Alabama Senator Doug Jones, who was Judge Jackson’s navigator throughout the interview process on Capitol Hill. He is expected to resume work with senators immediately after the hearings end, said two people familiar with the White House strategy.
During the hearing, Judge Jackson was accompanied by her husband, Dr. Patrick Graves Jackson, who wiped away tears as he read his statement, and her daughters, Leila and Talia.
“I fully admit that I haven’t always found the right balance,” she told her daughters, referring to the balance between her life as a mother and her work as a lawyer. “But I hope you’ve seen that with hard work, determination and love, it can be done.” The judge’s parents and brother were also seated nearby.
Janette McCarthy Wallace, the NAACP’s general counsel, who attended the hearing and sat in the witness section, said she was “thrilled” to be in the room where the story unfolded. was taking place. She said she was ready to hear criticism from Republicans.
“I think these are distractions from the fundamental fact that this is a qualified person to sit on this bench and who should be the next Supreme Court justice,” she said.
When asked what she expected to see from Judge Jackson throughout the hearing process, Ms McCarthy Wallace paused and then offered one word: “Brilliance”.
Annie Karni, Adam Liptack and Thrush Glenn contributed report.