WASHINGTON – Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson pledged Monday to decide cases “without fear or favor” if the Senate confirms her historic nomination as the first Black woman on the high court.
Jackson, 51, thanked God and professed love for “our country and the Constitution” in a 12-minute statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee at the end of her first day of confirmation hearings, nearly four hours almost entirely consumed by remarks from the panel's 22 members.
Republicans promised pointed questions over the coming two days, with a special focus on her record on criminal matters. Democrats were full of praise for President Joe Biden's Supreme Court nominee.
With her family sitting behind her, her husband in socks bearing George Washington's likeness, Jackson stressed that she has been independent, deciding cases “from a neutral posture” in her nine years as a judge, and that she is ever mindful of the importance of that role.
“I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building — equal justice under law — are a reality and not just an ideal,” she declared.
Barring a significant misstep, Democrats who control the Senate by the slimmest of margins intend to wrap up her confirmation before Easter. She would be the third Black justice, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, as well as the first Black woman on the high court.
Jackson’s sternest Republican critics as well as her Democratic defenders all acknowledged the historic, barrier-breaking nature of her presence. There were frequent reminders that no Black woman had been nominated to the high court before her and repeated references to another unique aspect of her nomination: Jackson is the first former public defender nominated to be a justice.
"It’s not easy being the first. Often, you have to be the best, in some ways the bravest,” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the committee chairman, said in support.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., spoke of the “joy” in the room and acknowledged her family's pride as Jackson's parents beamed behind her. Booker repeated a story Jackson has frequently told about a letter her youngest daughter wrote to President Barack Obama several years ago touting her mother's experience.
“We are going to see a new generation of children talking about their mamas and daring to write the president of the United States that my mom should be on the Supreme Court,” Booker said. “I want to tell your daughter right now, that dream of hers is so close to being a reality.”
In their opening statements, Democrats sought to preemptively rebut Republican criticism of her record on criminal matters as a judge and before that as a federal public defender and a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
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 law enforcement 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."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., noted that Democrats had opposed some past Republican judicial nominees who were Black or Hispanic, and he said that he and his GOP colleagues wouldn't be deterred by Jackson’s race from asking probing questions.
He said of some criticism from the left: “It’s about, ‘We’re all racist if we ask hard questions.’ That’s not going to fly with us.”
Graham was one of three Republicans to support Jackson's confirmation, 53-44, as an appellate judge last year. But he has indicated over the past several weeks that he is unlikely to vote for her again.
While 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 Republicans are trying to use her nomination to brand Democrats as soft on crime, an emerging theme in GOP midterm election campaigns. Biden has chosen several former public defenders for life-tenured judicial posts. In addition, Jackson served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency created by Congress to reduce disparity in federal prison sentences.
With Jackson silently taking notes, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., 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, which Hawley did not raise when he questioned Jackson last year before voting against her appeals court confirmation.
The White House, along with several Democrats at the hearing, has rejected Hawley’s criticism as “toxic and weakly presented misinformation.”
Former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who is guiding Jackson as she navigates the Senate process, told reporters afterward that “she will be the one to counter many of those questions” from Hawley and others on Tuesday and Wednesday.
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.
Her testimony will give most Americans, as well as the Senate, their most extensive look yet at the Harvard-trained lawyer with a broader resume than many nominees. She would be the first justice with significant criminal defense experience since Marshall.
Jackson appeared before the same committee last year, after Biden chose her to fill an opening on the federal appeals court in Washington, just down the hill from the Supreme Court.
The American Bar Association, which evaluates judicial nominees, has given her its highest rating, “well qualified.”
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 once worked as a law clerk to Breyer early in her legal career. She had special praise for her former boss, saying she could never fill his shoes. “But if confirmed, I would hope to carry on his spirit,” Jackson said.
She also expressed her thanks and love to her husband, Patrick Jackson, a surgeon in Washington who wiped away tears. Their two daughters, one in college and the other in high school, sat in the audience beside him.
Democrats are moving quickly to confirm Jackson, even though Breyer's seat will not officially open until the summer. They have no votes to spare in a 50-50 Senate that they run by virtue of the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
While the focus was on the Senate hearings, the court was in session Monday, but one chair was was empty. The 73-year-old Thomas, the longest-serving justice, was in the hospital being treated for an infection, but he does not have COVID-19, the court said.
Associated Press writers Colleen Long, Lisa Mascaro and Aaron Morrison in New York contributed to this report.