WASHINGTON – Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson began courting senators on Capitol Hill, making her case for confirmation in private meetings as Democrats worked to move her through the Senate within weeks.
Senate Democrats concerned about their narrow 50-50 majority — Vice President Kamala Harris breaks the tie — announced Wednesday that Jackson’s hearings will begin March 21, just three weeks after President Joe Biden nominated her to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer. With a goal of an April confirmation, they are using Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s quick confirmation ahead of the 2020 presidential election as a model for Jackson, who would be the first Black woman to serve as a justice in the court’s 200-plus year history.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin called the quick confirmation process “a contemporary standard” on Wednesday after he met with Jackson in his office, while acknowledging that part of the reason for the rapid timeline was because of his party's tenuous hold on the Senate.
“There’s no reason to wait,” Durbin said, even though Breyer has said he won’t leave the bench until summer. He noted that the committee is also familiar with Jackson, who was just confirmed as an appeals court judge last year and had been confirmed by the Senate two times before that.
The sped-up timeline is just one byproduct of increased partisanship, and a decade of gradual rules changes, in the once-collegial Senate. The majority party knows it can win confirmation with a simple majority, and bipartisan outreach is more symbolic than necessary. While the Senate once took up to two months to review cases and credentials before questioning a nominee, Republicans held hearings just two weeks after Barrett's nomination to replace the late liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the presidential election loomed.
Senators will have a bit more time to review Jackson’s record, but not much.
There has been little pushback from Republicans, who confirmed Barrett and two other justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, while they controlled the Senate and President Donald Trump was in office. While few GOP senators are expected to vote for Jackson, and several have questioned whether she is too liberal, they are not spending much political energy to oppose her, so far.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a GOP member of the Judiciary panel, said, “I don’t think there’s a lot of mystery involved,” since Jackson isn’t new to the committee.
“Given the fact that she’s not going to change the balance, the ideological balance on the court, I think people will be respectful, and they’ll do their due diligence and ask questions, but I think we all have a pretty good idea what the outcome is likely to be, unless there’s a big surprise," Cornyn said.
So far, there have been few surprises with Jackson, who has been a federal judge for nine years and is well-liked by members of both parties.
After his own meeting with Jackson, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the Senate will move her nomination “fairly but expeditiously.”
He gushed about the nominee to reporters, saying she is “an optimistic person” who tries to see all sides of an issue. He said they spoke some about her judicial philosophy but mostly about her life and her family.
“You can see it when you meet her that she has real empathy,” Schumer said. “I think it’s very important in a judge because you’re having two sides clashing over whatever the issue is, to be able to empathize and walk in the other person’s shoes.”
Jackson also met with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary panel. Referring to pitched partisan battles for Trump's three nominees, especially Kavanaugh, Grassley told reporters ahead of his meeting that Republicans would treat Jackson with “dignity and fairness, and most importantly thoroughness.”
As is tradition, the hearings this month will last four days, with opening statements March 21 and testimony and questioning the next two days. The fourth day will include testimony from outside witnesses.
Biden spoke about Jackson and honored Breyer in his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, calling the nominee “one of our nation’s top legal minds, who will continue Justice Breyer’s legacy of excellence.”
In addition to her time as a federal judge, Jackson, 51, once worked as one of Breyer’s law clerks and served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the agency that develops federal sentencing policy.
Biden said she was a “consensus builder,” noting her work as a private litigator and as a federal public defender, and pointed out that she comes from a family of public school educators and police officers.
While Democrats can win Jackson's confirmation without Republicans, assuming the caucus is present and healthy, they are still hoping to win some GOP votes. Durbin has said he is working toward that goal, predicting that “about half a dozen” GOP votes may be in play.
Only Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina voted to confirm Jackson to the appeals court last year. While Collins has appeared open to voting for Jackson again, Murkowski said in a statement last week that her previous vote did not mean she would be supportive this time.
Graham had pushed for a different candidate from his home state, federal Judge J. Michelle Childs, and expressed disappointment that she was not Biden’s pick.
Schumer said Jackson is someone who should appeal to all sides, noting her past as a public defender and support from some police groups, for example.
He said he hopes that when Republicans meet her, “they will be as wowed as I was. She's an amazing person."