Ketanji Brown Jackson: Supreme Court pick defends record during senators' questioning

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the U.S. Supreme Court nominee who would be become the first Black woman on the high court if confirmed, faced questioning from senators on Tuesday and defended her record as a federal judge. 

Jackson, 51, declared she would rule "from a position of neutrality" on the high court during the second day of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel’s 11 Democratic and 11 Republican senators began 30-minute rounds of questioning, with Jackson responding to their specific points — including Republican suggestions that she has given light sentences to child pornographers.

Responding to Sen. Dick Durbin, the Judiciary Committee chairman who preemptively brought up concerns previously raised by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Jackson pushed back on the notion that her rulings could have endangered children.

"As a mother and a judge who has had to deal with these cases, I was thinking that nothing could be further from the truth," Jackson said, calling it "some of the most difficult cases that a judge has to deal with."

She described looking into the eyes of defendants and explaining the lifelong effects on victims. It is "is important to me to represent that the children’s voices are represented," she said.

Tuesday’s hearing was the first of two days of questioning after Jackson and the 22 members of the committee gave opening statements on Monday. On Thursday, the committee will hear from legal experts before an eventual vote to move her nomination to the Senate floor.

Republicans on the committee promised to ask "tough questions" about Jackson’s judicial record and philosophy and vowed to not turn the weeklong hearing into the "spectacle" of previous confirmation hearings. Meanwhile, Democrats offered praise of President Joe Biden’s pick, calling the opening session "a proud day for America."

Durbin said that to be first, "often, you have to be the best, in some ways the bravest."

Jackson responded to Republicans who have questioned whether she is too liberal in her judicial philosophy, saying she tries to "understand what the people who created this law intended." She said she relies on the words of a statute but also looks to history and practice when the meaning may not be clear.

In response to GOP concerns about her being soft on crime — an emerging theme in Republican midterm election campaigns against Democrats in general — Jackson told the panel that her brother and two uncles served as police officers and "crime and the effect on the community, and the need for law enforcement, those are not abstract concepts or political slogans to me."

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U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, on March 22, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Ge

She defended work she did around 15 years ago as a public defender and later in private practice representing four Guantanamo Bay detainees. While some Republicans have complained that Jackson was defending terrorists, she noted that defenders don't pick their clients and are "standing up for the constitutional value of representation." She said she continued to represent one client in private practice because her firm happened to be assigned his case.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked her about her religion, and how often she goes to church, in comments about what he said was unfair criticism of Justice Amy Coney Barrett's Catholicism ahead of her 2020 confirmation.

Jackson — who thanked God in her opening statement and said that her faith "sustains me at this moment" — responded that she is a Protestant. But she said she is reluctant to talk about her faith in detail because "I want to be mindful of the need for the public to have confidence in my ability to separate out my personal views."

Jackson also professed love for "our country and the Constitution" in her 12-minute opening statement. She stressed that she has been independent, deciding cases "from a neutral posture" in her nine years as a federal judge, and took the time to thank her daughters.

"I am saving a special moment in this introduction for my daughters, Talia and Leila. Girls, I know it has not been easy as I have tried to navigate the challenges of juggling my career and motherhood. And I fully admit that I did not always get the balance right. But I hope that you have seen that with hard work, determination, and love, it can be done," she said.

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, a Harvard-trained lawyer with a resume that includes two years as a federal public defender, once worked as a high court law clerk to Breyer early in her legal career.

Jackson would be the third Black justice, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. She would also be only the sixth woman to serve on the court, and her confirmation would mean that for the first time four women would sit together on the nine-member, conservative-dominated court. The current court includes three women, one of whom is the court’s first Latina, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., spoke emotionally about the "joy" he felt about her historic nomination and acknowledged her family's pride. Booker, who is Black, said the white men who have sat on the Supreme Court for two centuries were "extraordinary patriots who helped shape this country" but that many people could have never dreamed of sitting on the court.

"When the next generation behind us looks at the highest courts in the land, this ideal will be made more real," Booker said.

Barring unexpected developments, Democrats who control the Senate by the slimmest of margins hoped to wrap up Jackson's confirmation before Easter, even though Breyer is not leaving the court until after the current session ends this summer. Democratic leaders are hoping for some Republican support but can confirm her with the support of only Democrats in the 50-50 Senate as Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.

Members of the Judiciary panel are already familiar with Jackson, who appeared before them last year after Biden chose her to fill an opening on the federal appeals court in Washington. She was also vetted by the committee and confirmed by the Senate as a district court judge under President Barack Obama and to her post on the sentencing commission.

Hawley said in his opening statement he was not interested in "trapping" Jackson during the hearings, calling her "enormously accomplished," but 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 in messages to supporters. Hawley is one of several committee Republicans, along with Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who are potential 2024 presidential candidates.

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 through the Senate process, told reporters afterward that "she will be the one to counter many of those questions" on Tuesday and Wednesday.

During his opening remarks, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was one of many who pointed to the handling of previous Supreme Court nominees, drawing comparisons between the treatment of Jackson and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh was nominated by former President Donald Trump and confirmed to the high court in 2018 amid high school-era accusations of sexual misconduct, which he denied.

"You will not be vilified. You will not be attacked for your religious views. You will not be accused of something that you could not defend yourself against until it was too late," Graham said.

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 the focus was on the Senate hearings, the Supreme Court itself was in session Monday, but one chair was empty. Thomas, 73, the longest-serving justice now on the court, was in the hospital being treated for an infection. He does not have COVID-19, the court said in a statement.

A look at Ketanji Brown Jackson’s career

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed in 2021 to the D.C.-based appellate court as a U.S. Circuit Judge, a position Biden elevated her to from her previous job as a federal trial court judge. Three current justices — Thomas, Kavanaugh and John Roberts, the chief justice — previously served on the same appeals court.

Jackson was confirmed to the appeals court by a 53-44 vote in June 2021, winning the backing of three Republicans: Graham, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. 

Another interesting GOP connection: Jackson is related by marriage to former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Jackson's husband, Dr. Patrick Jackson, is the brother of William Jackson, who married Ryan’s wife’s sister, Dana.

Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Miami. She has said that her parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, chose her name to express their pride in her family’s African ancestry. They asked an aunt who was in the Peace Corps in Africa at the time to send a list of African girls’ names and they picked Ketanji Onyika, which they were told meant "lovely one."

She traces her interest in the law to when she was in preschool and her father was in law school and they would sit together at the dining room table, she with coloring books and he with law books. Her father became an attorney for the county school board and her mom was a high school principal. She has a brother who is nine years younger who served in the Army, including in Iraq, and is now a lawyer.

In high school, she was the president of her public high school class and a debate champion. Richard B. Rosenthal, a lawyer who has known her since junior high, said there was no question she would rise to the top of whatever field she chose, describing her as "destined for greatness." His older brother, Stephen F. Rosenthal, a classmate and friend from Miami who also went to college and law school with her, called her a "natural leader" and someone with "penetrating intelligence."

Jackson attended Harvard, where she studied government but also was involved in drama and musical theater and part of an improv group called On Thin Ice. At one point she was assigned actor Matt Damon as a drama class partner, she has said, acknowledging he probably wouldn’t remember her. He does not, Damon previously confirmed through a representative, but added: "That’s so cool!"

Also at Harvard, she met her husband, who is a surgeon at Georgetown University Hospital, and the couple has two daughters.

From 1999 to 2000, Jackson was a law clerk for Breyer on the Supreme Court. Deborah Pearlstein, a law clerk to Justice John Paul Stevens the same year Jackson worked for Breyer, recalled Jackson as funny, insightful and "incredibly good at her job."

"I don’t know anybody there at the time who didn’t get along with Ketanji," Pearlstein said.

Jackson has since worked for large law firms over the course of her career but also was a public defender. After she was nominated to serve on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the agency that develops federal sentencing policy, she taught herself to knit to deal with the stress of the nomination and confirmation process, she has said.

As a commissioner, she was part of a unanimous vote to allow thousands of people already in federal prison for crack-related crimes get their sentences reduced as a result of a new law.

And Jackson’s work on the Sentencing Commission paved the way for her to become a federal trial court judge, where one of the things she displayed in her office was a copy of a famous, handwritten petition to the Supreme Court from a Florida prisoner, Clarence Gideon. The Supreme Court took his case and issued a landmark decision guaranteeing a lawyer for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one.

Jackson had served as a federal trial court judge since 2013, nominated by former President Barack Obama.

Jackson is currently a member of the Judicial Conference Committee on Defender Services, as well as the Board of Overseers of Harvard University and the Council of the American Law Institute. She also currently serves on the board of Georgetown Day School and the United States Supreme Court Fellows Commission.

This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.