US Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson defended her record of sentencing in child pornography cases and advocacy for terror suspects as she was grilled Tuesday in her bid to be the first Black woman on the country’s highest judicial bench.
The 51-year-old Harvard graduate has been facing what is expected to be more than 18 hours of intense scrutiny in the US Senate on her judicial philosophy and career after being named by President Joe Biden to succeed a retiring fellow liberal, Justice Stephen Breyer.
Fielding questions from Republicans on a variety of “culture war” issues on the second day of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jackson said she considered women’s right to abortion settled law but declined to offer a view on same-sex marriage.
She stressed her backing for free speech protections for all Americans, and said the ability to bear arms is a “fundamental right” guaranteed by the US Constitution.
The Miami native is already expected to have enough votes in the 50-50 Senate to succeed Breyer without much of a fight, but her elevation would still be seen as historic.
Of the 115 justices seated throughout the Supreme Court’s 233-year history, 108 have been white men and none have been Black women.
“I stand on the shoulders of generations past who never had anything close to this opportunity, who were the first — and the only — in a lot of different fields,” Jackson said.
On the Republican hard right, senators Josh Hawley, Mike Lee, Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz offered what they said was evidence of Jackson being sympathetic to people committing sex crimes against minors, particularly in sentencing child pornography cases.
Lee and Hawley brought up cases they said showed Jackson had deviated without justification from federal sentencing guidelines in offenders’ favor.
Independent fact checkers have pointed out that in two-thirds of child porn cases, federal judges sentence below the guidelines, which are just one element that Congress has asked judges to consider.
Democrats pointed to Hawley’s own record showing he has voted several times to confirm judges with similar judicial records.
Jackson remained largely unruffled, although she showed signs of frustration when Cruz, a classmate at Havard Law School, seemed to suggest a law review note she wrote in the 1990s showed she was sympathetic to child sex offenders.
She dismissed the suggestion as a mischaracterization.
Jackson looked more at ease addressing her role representing Guantanamo Bay detainees as a federal public defender, and advocating for them in private practice, a part of her career that has raised Republican eyebrows.
Are babies racist?
“That’s what you do as a federal public defender — you are standing up for the constitutional value of representation,” she said.
Senator Lindsey Graham, the committee’s only Republican who voted for Jackson’s nomination to the DC Circuit last year, was unconvinced by her answer however and later told CNN he saw red flags with Jackson’s nomination.
Keen to focus on issues they believe will resonate in November’s midterm elections, Republicans pressed Jackson repeatedly on hot-button political issues — from treatment of detainees to the school curriculum — that had no relevance to the role she would have on the court.
Cruz tried to get Jackson to admit that “critical race theory” (CRT) — an arcane academic discipline that Republicans have tried to characterize as a cornerstone of Democrats’ outlook — was an element in her judicial philosophy.
At one point, the Texas senator held up an anti-racist text book designed for children, and asked the judge if she thought babies were racist.
Jackson declined to take the bait, telling Cruz that CRT was “never something that I have studied or relied on, and it wouldn’t be something that I would rely on if I was on the Supreme Court.”
Other Republicans tried to use Jackson’s experience as a public defender to characterize her more generally as “soft on crime” or anti-police.
The hearings are expected to conclude Thursday and Democrats hope for a final Senate vote before the Easter recess in mid-April.