The Senate judiciary committee opened confirmation hearings on Monday for Ketanji Brown Jackson, at the start of four days of potentially bruising partisan wrangling over the first Black woman to be nominated for the US supreme court in its 233 years of existence.
The hearings were gavelled into session by Dick Durbin, the Democratic chairman of the committee, who set Jackson’s nomination within the long arc of American history. The senator from Illinois pointed out that when the court first sat there were almost 700,000 people enslaved in the US, with no citizenship rights or access to equal justice.
“You are living witness to the fact that, in America, all is possible,” Durbin said. “We’ve come a long way since 1790, and we know we still have to form a more perfect union.”
But within minutes of the clack of Durbin’s gavel, Republican committee members set out a starkly conflicting approach that sought to puncture Jackson’s reputation by attacking her “radical” liberal connections.
Chuck Grassley, from Iowa, portrayed the nominee as a darling of progressive “dark money” groups which he claimed were “soft on crime” at a time when violent crime was sweeping big cities.
Josh Hawley, of Missouri, doubled down on his incendiary accusation last week that in her seven years as a federal district court judge, Jackson showed leniency towards child pornography offenders. Hawley’s claims in a Twitter stream were exposed as baseless and misleading by media fact checkers.
In his opening statement on Monday, Hawley read out a list of seven cases heard by Jackson in her district court days which the senator claimed showed a disparity between relatively lenient sentences she meted out and both existing sentencing guidelines and prosecutors’ requests. Hawley said the cases “troubled” him.
“What concerns me, and I’ve been very candid about this, is that Judge Jackson handed down a lenient sentence that was below the guidelines recommended.”
The senator insisted he was not interested in “trapping” the nominee, or “playing gotcha” – he just wanted to hear her explanation for her actions.
Jackson’s confirmation, should she survive the whitewater ride of the next few days followed by a full Senate vote by early April, would fundamentally affect not just the public face and diversity of the nation’s highest court.
Though her appointment would not change the six to three rightwing balance of the court – she would replace the liberal justice Stephen Breyer, who is retiring – she could shape the legal landscape of the US for decades to come.
Her appointment could also drastically affect the standing of Joe Biden, the president who nominated her in keeping with a 2020 campaign promise to select a Black woman.
Shortly before the hearings began, Biden spoke out in support of Jackson. He tweeted that she was a “brilliant legal mind with the utmost character and integrity”, who deserved to be confirmed.
In their opening remarks, Democratic senators sought to similarly bolster Jackson’s position before she faces two days of direct questioning.
Patrick Leahy, from Vermont, condemned the idea the nominee was bound to leftwing groups.
“Judge Jackson is no judicial activist,” he said. “She is not a puppet of the so-called radical left.”
Leahy, like several other Democrats, highlighted Jackson’s background in a law enforcement family and pointedly referred to her endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police.
But White House hopes of a smooth and dignified confirmation to steer Jackson into Breyer’s seat were dashed. Republican members of the evenly divided 22-seat committee pursued notably caustic lines of inquiry.
Lindsey Graham, from South Carolina, was one of three Republicans who voted to confirm Jackson when she came before the Senate last year for a seat on the US court of appeals for the DC circuit. On Monday, he took a strikingly more hostile line.
He asked why liberal groups that want to reform the supreme court, such as Demand Justice, were backing her. These were the “most radical elements of the Democratic party with the most radical views of how to be a judge – and you are their choice”, Graham said, though like other Republicans he stopped short of casting aspersions on Jackson directly.
Other leading Republican members of the committee – several with presidential ambitions – laid out their stall in front of the TV cameras. Ted Cruz from Texas promised not to engage in “character smears”, which he accused his Democratic peers of having engaged in during the 2018 confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh that were roiled by allegations of sexual misconduct.
Cruz listed several of the most toxic fault lines of American society: hate speech, religious liberty, abortion rights, the right to bear arms and crime. He said he wanted to hear whether Jackson would be for or against liberty in those areas.
Democratic managers will be watching closely as Jackson gets to answer these attack lines on Tuesday and Wednesday, before outside witnesses testify on Thursday. They have very little wriggle room.
With a 50-50 split in the Senate, and Vice-President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote, the Democrats cannot afford even a single defection should every Republican vote against her.
Born in Washington, Jackson was brought up largely in Florida and attended Harvard law school. If confirmed, she would be unique among supreme court justices in that she had two years’ experience as a public defender representing criminal defendants.
She has been on the federal bench since 2013, rising to the US appeals court for the DC circuit last year. That court has been labelled the “second highest court in the land” because so many supreme court justices have been plucked from there.