WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing senators’ questions for the first time, Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson forcefully defended her record as a federal judge Tuesday, declaring she will rule “from a position of neutrality” if she is confirmed as the first Black woman on the high court.
Jackson started the hearing by responding to Republicans who have questioned whether she is too liberal in her judicial philosophy. She said she tries to “understand what the people who created this law intended,“ relying on the words of a statute but also looking to history and practice when the meaning may not be clear.
Responding to Sen. Dick Durbin, the Judiciary Committee chairman, she also pushed back on Republican suggestions that she has given light sentences to child pornographers.
Could her rulings have endangered children? “As a mother and a judge,” she said, “nothing could be further from the truth.”
Those are some of the toughest cases a judge has to deal with, she said. She described looking into the eyes of defendants and explaining the lifelong effects on victims.
It is “is important to me to represent that the children’s voices are represented,” she said.
In what Durbin described as “a trial by ordeal,” Jackson answered questions right off the bat that attempted to deflect GOP concerns and also highlight the empathetic style that she has frequently described. Republicans planned to use their questioning to brand Jackson — and Democrats in general — as soft on crime, an emerging theme in GOP midterm election campaigns.
Tuesday’s hearing was the first of two days of questioning after Jackson and the 22 members of the committee 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.
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 the court until after the current session ends this summer.
In her own 12-minute statement, Jackson didn’t mention specific cases but told the committee that she would “apply the laws to the facts of the case before me, without fear or favor, consistent with my judicial oath,” if she were to be confirmed.
While Republicans promised pointed questions, Democrats were full of praise for President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said that to be first, “often, you have to be the best, in some ways the bravest.”
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.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., spoke emotionally about the “joy” he felt about her historic nomination and acknowledged her family’s pride. Booker, who is Black, said the white men who have sat on the Supreme Court for two centuries were “extraordinary patriots who helped shape this country” but that many people could have never dreamed of sitting on the court.
Jackson would be the third Black justice, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, and the sixth woman.
“When the next generation behind us looks at the highest courts in the land, this ideal will be made more real,” Booker said.
Democratic leaders are hoping for some Republican support, but can confirm her with the support of only Democrats in the 50-50 Senate as Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.
In the opening statements, Democrats on the Judiciary panel sought to preemptively rebut Republican criticism of Jackson’s record on criminal matters as a judge and before that as a federal public defender and a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency created by Congress to reduce disparity in federal prison sentences.
Jackson “is not anti-law enforcement” and is not “soft on crime,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, noting that members of Jackson’s family have worked in law enforcement and that she has support from some national police organizations. ”Judge Jackson is no judicial activist.”
The committee’s senior Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, promised Republicans would “ask tough questions about Jackson’s judicial philosophy,” without turning the hearings into a ”spectacle.”
Even though few Republicans are likely to vote for her, most GOP senators did not aggressively criticize Jackson, whose confirmation would not change the court’s 6-3 conservative majority. Several Republicans used their time to denounce Senate Democrats instead of Jackson’s record.
The questions about her sentences for child pornographers first came from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who said in his opening statement that his research showed that she had a pattern of issuing lower sentences in child pornography cases, repeating comments he wrote in a Twitter thread last week. The Republican National Committee echoed his claims in blast messages to supporters.
The White House, along with several Democrats at the hearing, has rejected Hawley’s criticism as “toxic and weakly presented misinformation.” Sentencing expert Douglas Berman, an Ohio State law professor, wrote on his blog that Jackson’s record shows she is skeptical of the range of prison terms recommended for child pornography cases, “but so too were prosecutors in the majority of her cases and so too are district judges nationwide.”
Hawley is one of several committee Republicans, along with Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who are potential 2024 presidential candidates, and their aspirations may collide with other Republicans who would prefer not to pursue a scorched-earth approach to Jackson’s nomination.
Members of the Judiciary panel are already familiar with Jackson, who appeared before them last year after Biden chose her to fill an opening on the federal appeals court in Washington. She was also vetted by the committee and confirmed by the Senate as a district court judge under President Barack Obama and to her post on the sentencing commission.
In her opening statement, Jackson expressed her thanks and love to her husband, Patrick Jackson, a surgeon in Washington who wore socks with an image of George Washington and occasionally wiped away tears. Their two daughters, one in college and the other in high school, also attended, as did Jackson’s parents and in-laws.
While the focus was on the Senate hearings, the Supreme Court itself was in session Monday, but one chair was was empty. Thomas, 73, the longest-serving justice now on the court, was in the hospital being treated for an infection. He does not have COVID-19, the court said in a statement.
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Jessica Gresko, Colleen Long and Kevin Freking in Washington and Aaron Morrison in New York contributed to this report.