WASHINGTON (AP) — Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson faced a barrage of Republican questioning Wednesday about her sentencing of criminal defendants, as her history-making bid to join the Supreme Court veered from lofty constitutional questions to attacks on her motivations as a judge.
She declared she would rule “without any agendas” as the high court’s first black female justice, rejecting Republican efforts to paint her as soft on crime in her decade on the federal bench. Democrats defended her and heralded the historic nature of her nomination.
“America is ready for the Supreme Court glass ceiling to shatter,” Sen. Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in Jackson’s second and last day answering questions at her confirmation hearings.
Though her approval seems all but sure — Democrats are aiming for a vote before Easter — Republicans kept trying to chip away at her record.
In more than 12 hours of testimony on Tuesday, GOP senators aggressively questioned her on the sentences she has handed down to child pornography offenders, her legal advocacy on behalf of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, her thoughts on critical race theory and even her religious views.
In response to questioning about a case over affirmative action at Harvard University, her alma mater, Jackson said she would recuse herself. “That’s my plan,” she responded when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz asked her about it. Jackson serves on Harvard’s Board of Overseers.
In tense questioning, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham grilled Jackson on the punishment she believes appropriate for people convicted of child pornography — an issue several of his colleagues on the right also have brought up. They have portrayed some of her past sentencing decisions, along with her answers in the hearing, as too lenient.
Graham frequently interrupted her as she tried to speak and at one point said judges should simply “put their a— in jail!”
That exchange with Graham was part of a larger effort by the committee’s Republicans — several of whom are potential presidential candidates — to characterize Jackson’s record, and her judicial philosophy, as too empathetic and soft on criminals who commit the worst offenses.
There is an emerging emphasis on crime in GOP midterm election campaigns, and the questioning at the hearing suggested that, contrary to Democratic hopes, Jackson’s confirmation vote in the full Senate is unlikely to garner much, if any, Republican support.
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, the first Republican to question Jackson on Wednesday, said she seems like “a very kind person” — but “there’s at least a level of empathy that enters into your treatment of a defendant that some could view as maybe beyond what some of us would be comfortable with, with respect to administering justice.”
Jackson, backed by committee Democrats, forcefully defended her record and said that the Republicans were mischaracterizing her decisions. Asked if her rulings were endangering children, she told the committee on Tuesday: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
She said she bases sentences on many factors, not just federal guidelines, and that some of the cases had given her nightmares. She said that sentencing is not a “numbers game,” noting that there are no mandatory sentences for sex offenders and that there has been significant debate on the subject.
The cases are “among the worst that I have seen,” Jackson said.
She said that if she is confirmed, she will do what she has done as a federal judge, “which is to rule from a position of neutrality, to look carefully at the facts and the circumstances of every case without any agendas, without any attempt to push the law in one direction or the other.”
She reminded 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.”
Though trying to undercut her record, several Republicans acknowledged that she is likely to be confirmed. Democrats can confirm her without any bipartisan support in the 50-50 Senate as Vice President Kamala Harris can cast the tiebreaking vote.
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 this summer after 28 years on the court.
Jackson would be the third Black justice, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, and the sixth woman. Her confirmation would maintain the current 6-3 conservative majority on the court.
On Thursday, the last day of hearings, the committee will hear from legal experts before an eventual vote to move her nomination to the Senate floor.
Democrats have been full of praise for Jackson, 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.
Jackson said that having a diverse judicial branch is important because it “bolsters public confidence in our system” and “lends confidence that the rulings that the court is handing down are fair and just.”
She spoke of her parents often over the two days of questioning, and contrasted her own journey to their experiences growing up during the country’s segregated past.
“One generation, we’ve gone from the reality of my parents’ upbringing to the reality of mine, and I do consider myself, having been born in 1970, to be the first generation to benefit from the civil rights movement,” Jackson said.
In opposition, Republicans also have focused on her work 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.
Some of the most combative rounds of questioning on Tuesday came from the potential GOP presidential candidates, including Cruz, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. All hit on issues that are popular with the GOP base, including attacks on critical race theory, 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.
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.
Even now, the court is weighing whether to overrule those cases that affirm a nationwide right to abortion.
Near the end of Tuesday’s long hearing, 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.”