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Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing will be a forum for political attacks

Republicans have already used her nomination to go after Democrats for being too “radical.”

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson on Capitol Hill on March 9. If confirmed, Jackson would be the sixth female justice in the court’s history, the third Black justice, and the first to have been a federal public defender. 
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

There’s very little reason to doubt Ketanji Brown Jackson will be confirmed and become the first Black woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice. She doesn’t need to garner any Republican support in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and her ascension in place of retiring Justice Stephen Breyer won’t shift the ideological makeup of the court.

But this week’s hearings to vet the historic nominee will provide a platform for both Democrats and Republicans to send political messages, and that’s what they’re signaling they will do.

For Democrats, it’s an opportunity to confirm a historic new member to the Supreme Court, help President Joe Biden deliver on a big promise he made to Black voters during the campaign, and make the case for some Republicans to support her, too. For Republicans, it’s a chance to use Jackson’s nomination, and the support she’s gotten from liberal groups like Demand Justice, to question whether Democrats are too far to the left and “soft on crime.”

“I think [Republicans’] focus is going to be trying to accuse Democrats and Biden of being pro-crime, to try to obscure the dark money history of their last three nominees with a lot of smoke about her supposed dark money history,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told Vox. “I think she’s less going to be the target than us, and they’ll be pivoting off her to make points for November.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) signaled as much in a recent floor speech about Jackson’s nomination. “We need to explore why the farthest-left activists in the country desperately wanted Judge Jackson in,” McConnell said. “Liberals are saying that Judge Jackson’s service as a criminal defense lawyer and then on the US Sentencing Commission give her special empathy for convicted criminals.”

When and how to watch Jackson’s hearings

The hearing will air Monday, March 21, through Thursday, March 24, beginning at 11 am on Monday and 9 am on subsequent days. It will be accessible via a livestream on the Senate Judiciary Committee website, as well as via C-SPAN.

The panel begins Monday with statements from each senator on the committee, as well as an introduction from Jackson. Much of the action, however, will be concentrated on Tuesday and Wednesday, when members of the committee will have a chance to ask questions about her experience and judicial philosophy.

Jackson’s historic nomination, briefly explained

Biden first nominated Jackson for the Supreme Court in late February, a few weeks after Breyer announced that he’d retire.

As Vox’s Ian Millhiser has explained, Jackson’s long been a contender for the high court and was previously interviewed for the job by former President Barack Obama as well.

If confirmed, Jackson would bring extensive experience to the position: She became a DC Circuit Court judge last summer, and served as a DC District Court judge for eight years prior to that. Before that, she was a public defender, vice chair of the US Sentencing Commission — a federal body that offers sentencing guidance for the federal judiciary — and an attorney in private practice.

Jackson has ruled on a range of cases, and joined a recent decision that Trump couldn’t block House committees from accessing documents related to the Capitol attack of January 6, 2021. As a member of the Sentencing Commission, Jackson backed reductions to penalties for drug-related offenses, and as a public defender, she represented a detainee in Guantanamo Bay as well as criminal defendants.

Jackson’s nomination marks an important milestone: Biden had previously promised he’d nominate the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court, which has only had five women Justices and two Black Justices in its over-200-year history.

After the hearing, the confirmation is set to move quickly, with Democrats aiming to hold a final Senate vote before April 8.

If confirmed, it’s not yet certain when Jackson would officially join the Court. Breyer has said that he will retire by the end of this Supreme Court term this summer.

What to expect from Democrats and Republicans

For the first time since 2016, Democrats are in the position of fielding a nominee they support.

They’ll be using the hearing to talk up her credentials, to emphasize how much bipartisan backing she has, and to stress the importance of bringing more racial and ideological diversity to the federal bench.

“Clearly, this is an extraordinarily qualified person,” Judiciary Committee member Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told Vox. “Their experience on the federal bench overshadows many of the people there now.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are poised to ask about Jackson’s record on criminal justice issues including her time on the US Sentencing Commission, past work defending a Guantanamo Bay detainee, and decisions related to child sex offenders. The decision about Trump and the January 6 documents, and comments she’s made declining to reject court packing, are also expected to come up.

Multiple Republicans on the Judiciary Committee including Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Mike Lee (R-UT), have raised particular concerns about Jackson’s work on cases involving child sex offenders. In a recent Twitter thread, Hawley emphasized a series of cases when Jackson imposed shorter sentences for people in child porn cases than the federal sentencing standards. Many of the attacks in Hawley’s thread were unfounded, and Jackson’s approach to sentencing was consistent with how bipartisan experts have approached the issue.

“I think her cases and her record deserve answers, and I’d like to get them next week,” Hawley told reporters. “I’d like to hear from her why she sentenced the way she did.”

Broadly, Jackson’s hearing gives Republicans an opportunity to hit several of their favorite talking points against Democrats. GOP lawmakers claim, however, that they’ll take a more respectful approach to the hearing than they say Democrats previously took with nominees like Brett Kavanaugh, though that remains to be seen.

Already, they’ve deemed Jackson far left because of the support she’s received from progressive organizations. They’ve emphasized, too, that her appointment adds to a larger Democratic effort to go “soft on crime.”

“President Biden is deliberately working to make the whole federal judiciary softer on crime,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a recent floor speech.

The challenge that Republicans face in this process is that the outcome is pretty much determined.

Since it will only take a simple majority vote, Democrats will be able to confirm her on their own if all 50 members of the caucus stick together and Vice President Kamala Harris serves as a tie-breaking vote. Democrats have also emphasized that Jackson has backing from several bipartisan groups as well as law enforcement organizations including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police.

Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers confirmed Jackson to the DC Circuit Court 53-44, with Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Lindsey Graham crossing party lines to support her. Because of how politicized Supreme Court nominations have gotten, though, it’s not yet clear if any of them would back Jackson this time around. Graham, for instance, noted that the “radical Left has won” when Jackson was nominated.

Their votes aren’t needed as things stand, though, and short of any major surprises concerning Jackson, the question is whether either side’s message sticks.

“My goal is to make this a political wash instead of a political win for Democrats,” says Mike Davis, the head of a right-leaning group called The Article III Project, who’s also had informal talks with Republican committee staff.