Jackson’s Historic Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings

Photo from CNBC.com

On Feb. 25, President Joe Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the 116th Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Her nomination marks a watershed moment in American history: if confirmed, she will be the third Black justice, following Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, and the sixth woman. She would also be the court’s first former public defender. Her nomination has brought renewed attention to the lack of Black judges on the federal bench, and has created a growing conversation surrounding diversity in the federal judiciary.

Jackson, who is currently a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, grew up in Miami, Florida, and attended Harvard for both her undergraduate and law degrees. She has worked in private practice, on the US Sentencing Commission, as a public defender and as a federal district judge.

Jackson’s Senate confirmation hearings began March 20 and lasted four days. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled an April 4 panel vote, giving the 22 members of the panel an opportunity to make statements explaining their vote on Jackson’s nomination.

Jackson is expected to receive support from the committee’s 11 Democrats. If all Republicans vote against the nominee and the result is a tie, Democrats will have to take another procedural step before the nomination can be brought to the Senate floor for a final vote; however, Maine Sen. Susan Collins has indicated she will vote to confirm Jackson, giving Democrats at least one Republican vote.

That being said, the historic Senate hearings, as stated by an AP News article, “have been joyful, combative and clarifying, putting on display the breadth of the nation’s partisan divide and the unresolved problems of its past.” Within four days, Republicans began a line of questioning that left many Americans unimpressed. According to a Quinnipac University poll, “Americans disapprove 52-27 percent of the way Republican Senators are handling the confirmation process, while 21 percent did not offer an opinion.”

Photo from NPR.org

During the hearings, opponents quizzed Jackson on her views on race and crime, amplifying election-year grievances and a backlash against changing culture. Republicans emphasized Jackson’s sentencing in criminal cases, claiming it demonstrates too much “empathy” for defendants. Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, rebutted the charges, and Jackson defended her record; however the assertion that Jackson is soft on crime has remained a sticking point in Republican opposition to her nomination.

Republicans also focused on Jackson’s rulings in child pornography cases, with Republican Sen. Josh Hawley making misleading allegations that Jackson has a “long record” of letting child pornography offenders “off the hook” during sentencing. According to ABC News and experts such as Doug Berman, a leading expert on sentencing law and policy at The Ohio State University School of Law, while court records show that Jackson imposed lighter sentences than federal guidelines suggested, this is fairly common for federal judges, and Hawley himself has previously voted to confirm at least three federal judges who engaged in the same practice.

“If and when we properly contextualize Judge Jackson’s sentencing record in federal child porn cases, it looks pretty mainstream,” wrote Berman. “Federal judges nationwide typically sentence below the [child pornography] guideline in roughly 2 out of 3 cases,” Berman noted on his blog, and “when deciding to go below the [child pornography] guideline, typically impose sentences around 54 months below the calculated guideline minimum.”

Photo from USNews.com

Republicans were chastised by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and other Democrats for attacking Jackson’s record. Hawley’s line of questioning, according to Psaki, was “disingenuous” and relied on factual inaccuracies that took her record “wildly out of context.” Rep. Joyce Beatty, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, stated that “these bad faith efforts exist despite a resume that arguably surpasses those of previous nominees.” Beatty also said that she wanted to “remind [the Senate Judiciary Committee] and America [that] just last year, Judge Jackson was confirmed by [the Senate] on a bipartisan vote to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court.”

During her testimony before the committee, Beatty also compared Jackson’s historical moment to that of civil rights icon Rosa Parks and other Americans, urging senators to consider what the judge’s confirmation to the Supreme Court would mean for the country. “We are no longer looking at 50-65 years ago,” she said, of the previous era of civil rights battles, “but yet we’re still fighting.”

Photo form BBC.com

The American Bar Association’s (ABA) Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has also backed Jackson. The ABA committee has given Jackson the same highest rating its given most recent Supreme Court nominees, including Justice Amy Coney Barrett, indicating that Jackson’s qualifications are clearly well-supported. The committee’s chair, Ann Claire Williams, testified on the review of some 250-legal professionals on Jackson’s record during the hearings, and the ABA stated Jackson was “outstanding, excellent, superior, superb,” agreeing with Beatty’s assertion that Jackson’s resume leaves her well-equipped for a position on the Supreme Court.

With the panel vote scheduled for April 4, the Senate Judiciary Committee will start the process for all 100 U.S. senators to vote on whether she should sit on the Supreme Court. After rules changes that allow a mere 51-vote majority, senators no longer require bipartisan cooperation to confirm judicial nominations. With Democrats holding a narrow majority in the 50-50 chamber and Vice President Kamala Harris able to break a tie, Jackson’s nomination seems likely certain.


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