High history and low politics on day one of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing

A confirmation hearing Monday for Ketanji Brown Jackson — the 51-year-old federal judge whom President Biden appointed last month to replace Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer — began with a history lesson. One hundred and fifteen justices have served on the Supreme Court since its first meeting in 1790, Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in his opening statement. One hundred and eight of those appointees were white men, with only two men of color and one woman of color. “Not a single judge has been a black woman,” Durbin added. Addressing the contestant, Durbin continued, “You, Judge Jackson, can be the first.” Durbin reviewed Jackson’s impressive resume: champion high school debater; Harvard undergraduate; Graduated from Harvard Law School; clerk to three federal judges; public defender; lawyer in private practice; vice chairman of the US Sentencing Commission, which Congress created in 1984 to reduce sentencing disparities in federal courts; federal district judge; and, since 2021, a member of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, often referred to as the nation’s second highest court. During Justice Jackson’s career, the Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed her case no less than four times, Durbin noted, and just a year ago upheld her in the Court of Appeals. .

At the start of a week-long hearing that was all but sure to descend into performative politics and partisan acrimony, Durbin clearly and succinctly spelled out the two essential elements of Jackson’s nomination: that it is a long-awaited event and that she seems to be eminently qualified. This explosion of senatorial clarity and brevity, however, proved short-lived. After Durbin and top Republican member Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa delivered their opening remarks, Jackson was compelled to sit for several hours and listen to the other twenty committee members make their own opening statements in front of the cameras, many of which were predictable. . On the Democratic side, which yearns for a big political victory, at least some of them seemed sincere. “You, Judge, are opening a door that has long been closed,” said beaming Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. (She also praised Jackson for dressing in a purple top, purple being the color of the Minnesota Vikings.) Senator Cory Booker, who himself broke a color line by becoming the first African-American senator American from New Jersey, was understandably moved. “I get this feeling of overwhelming joy when I see you sitting there, when I see your family sitting behind you,” Booker said.

Even some of the Republican senators acknowledged the candidate’s credentials. “Congratulations – a well-deserved honor here,” said Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. But neither Graham nor any of the other Republican members of the committee said anything to suggest they would vote for Jackson. Some of them, including Grassley; John Kennedy, of Louisiana; and Thom Tillis of North Carolina said their questions to Jackson this week would focus on whether she is dedicated enough to what Grassley described as “the Constitution as it was originally understood when first writing”. Other far-right GOP voices seemed determined to use the audience for both their culture war activities and their own political ambitions.

Among them are two potential presidential candidates for 2024: Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley. After discussing vaccination mandates, the southern border and critical race theory, Cotton, who last year voted against Jackson’s nomination to the Court of Appeals, said: “We are seeing a collapse of the society. (Cotton didn’t elaborate on what Jackson had to do with the supposed breakdown.) Hawley went even lower. Last week, he accused Jackson of “letting juvenile porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes.” Fact checkers immediately questioned Hawley’s claims, and Andrew McCarthy, a legal writer at the Conservative National exam, dismissed them as “unmerited down to demagoguery”. Hawley can’t be ashamed though. “I’m not interested in trapping Judge Jackson,” he insisted, after discussing seven specific cases Jackson had presided over. “I’m not interested in trying to play ‘gotcha’. I’m interested in his answers.

It’s sometimes tempting to believe that Hawley — the product of a Jesuit high school, Stanford, and Yale Law School — is simply playing a right-wing madman for the cameras and the 2024 GOP electorate. Marsha Blackburn, the Voluble Republican senator from Tennessee for a first term, has amply demonstrated that she is in a class of her own. Jackson “consistently called for greater freedom for hardened criminals,” Blackburn claimed, citing no evidence. The contestant, she claimed, had also served on the board of a progressive elementary school that hosted a “Woke Kindergarten” event; Jackson had also approved of the 1619 project. Blackburn, as if out of a spell, then completely changed her tune and told Jackson, “Your story is a wonderful example of the American dream realized.”

After four hours of speeches by senators, it was finally time for Jackson to be officially introduced. Thomas B. Griffith, one of his former colleagues on the United States Court of Appeals, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, praised his extensive knowledge of the law and his collegial spirit. “Judge Jackson is an independent jurist who rules on the basis of facts and the law, not as a partisan,” Griffith said. “Time and time again, she has demonstrated that impartiality.” Griffith also reminded the assembled senators that some of their predecessors had confirmed Antonin Scalia, a staunch conservative, to the Supreme Court by a vote of ninety-eight to zero, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a staunch liberal, by eighty. -sixteen votes to three. . Then came Lisa Fairfax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who was Jackson’s roommate at Harvard. She described Jackson as a “rock” and a “role model” for her friends – the kind of person who leads by example and is the first to knock on the door when tragedy strikes.

Jackson then read a prepared statement describing how she was born in Washington, DC, in 1970, just six years after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. His parents were both teachers. To “express both pride in their heritage and hope for the future, they gave me an African name: Ketanji Onyika, which they were told meant ‘lovable,'” Jackson said. When she was four, the family moved to Miami, where her father entered law school and made his first memories. “He had his pile of law books on the kitchen table, while I sat across from him with my pile of coloring books,” she recalled. She also introduced her husband, Dr. Patrick Jackson, a surgeon she met at Harvard; his brother Ketajh, a former policeman who also served in the US military after 9/11; and her daughters, Talia and Leila. Then, briefly, Jackson moved on to her own career. “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.

Virtually every candidate for the bench these days says the same, of course, because it’s the safest thing to do. In the political trench warfare that has replaced advice and consent in the Senate, the game is to avoid giving ammunition to the enemy, and, at the end of the process, to count the votes. But, even in this degraded environment, a bit of meaning and history can sometimes come through. “I stand on the shoulders of so many who have come before me, including Justice Constance Baker Motley, who was the first African-American woman to be appointed to the federal bench and with whom I share a birthday,” Jackson said, finishing. “And, like Justice Motley, I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words etched into the facade of the Supreme Court building – ‘Equal justice under the law’ – are a reality and not just an ideal. . Thank you for this historic chance to join the highest court, work with brilliant colleagues, inspire future generations, and secure freedom and justice for all. The first day ended on this positive note. In the remaining three days of the hearing, it is unlikely to stand.

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