'A couple interesting days' ahead as Judge Jackson's historic Supreme Court confirmation hearings begin

"During this hearing, I hope that you will see how much I love our country and the Constitution and the rights that make us free," Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson told senators.

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden's nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday that she decides cases from a "neutral posture" and would continue to do so if confirmed to be the first Black woman in history seated on the nation's highest court

Democrats celebrated Jackson's nomination during the more than four hours of debate, noting her background as a former federal public defender and longtime federal judge who is supported by a broad range of groups, including those representing law enforcement. Because of that, her supporters said, she should win bipartisan support.

"If I am confirmed, I commit to you that I will work productively to support and defend the Constitution and this grand experiment of American democracy that has endured over these past 246 years," Jackson told the committee.

"I decide cases from a neutral posture," she continued. "I evaluate the facts, and I interpret and apply the law to the facts of the case before me, without fear or favor, consistent with my judicial oath."  

But Republican critics signaled that Jackson will likely face additional scrutiny Tuesday, when she returns for the first day of questioning. Those inquiries are likely to focus on her judicial philosophy, her work as a defense attorney and some of the sentences she handed down to criminal defendants as a trial court judge.

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Jackson sat silently for hours at the witness table for most of the day, her husband and two daughters over her left shoulder, as senators read opening statements. Jackson, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, occasionally smiled or took notes as Democrats and Republicans sought to frame her background and record. 

If confirmed, Jackson would replace retiring Associate Justice Stephen Breyer.  

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Republicans mainly focused on prior hearings, accusing Democrats of treating nominees from GOP presidents unfairly, rather than on Jackson herself. Brett Kavanaugh's fight to become an associate justice became a national spectacle in 2018 when allegations of decades-old sexual misconduct surfaced after his initial round of hearings. Kavanaugh denied the allegations and was narrowly confirmed.

"Your hearing will feature none of that disgraceful behavior," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2024. “No one is going to inquire into your teenage dating habits. No one is going to ask you with mock severity, ‘Do you like beer?’”

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson listens during confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday, March 21, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) ORG XMIT: DCJM318

The political dynamics were different this time for reasons that had little to do with which party controls the White House: For starters, Jackson's confirmation would not upset the conservatives' 6-3 advantage on the high court. The conflict in Ukraine, meanwhile, and high levels of inflation have competed with the historic nomination for the nation's attention.

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Republican senators seemed eager to keep the temperature low. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said that he had questions about Jackson's judicial philosophy but that she was "honest and forthcoming" in their meeting before the hearing. She has "the right temperament," he said.

Hearings will last through Thursday, and the real fireworks may be on display Tuesday and Wednesday, when senators press Jackson with questions.

Jackson, who has been confirmed three times to other positions by the Senate, is the most experienced with the process of any recent Supreme Court nominee. She was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit less than a year ago and picked up three Republican votes on the Senate floor.

The Miami-native and Harvard-educated attorney clerked for the man she would replace, Breyer. Jackson, 51, also served as a federal trial court judge.

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"Today is a proud day for America," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "We’ve come a long way since 1790." 

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Experts predicted the votes for Jackson are probably already set – assuming no surprises emerge. Democrats narrowly control the Senate, and most recent Supreme Court candidates have picked up two or three votes from the party opposite the nominating president.  

"All of my professional experiences, including my work as a public defender, and as a trial judge, have instilled in me the importance of having each litigant know that the judge in their case has heard them whether or not their arguments prevail in court," Jackson said. "During this hearing, I hope that you will see how much I love our country and the Constitution and the rights that make us free." 

In one of Monday's more intense moments, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., pressed Jackson that as a judge, she consistently handed down sentences for child pornography possession charges that were below the guidelines recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency.

White House officials and independent experts have pushed back on that criticism, noting that the majority of sentences for that crime come in under the guidelines, regardless of the judge, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. That trend follows a years-old debate about the guidelines for child pornography offenses and whether they are too harsh. Hawley said that he believes they are not and that it's fair to debate.

Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., right, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, lead the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson on March 21.

"I'll just be honest, I can't say that I agree with that," said Hawley, a former attorney general in Missouri and a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2024. "The amount of child pornography in circulation has absolutely exploded."

As she did through most of the hearing, Jackson sat in silence as Hawley spoke. She did not directly address the issue during her remarks. 

One possible GOP vote in Jackson's favor, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., appeared peeved that Biden didn't choose a federal judge from Graham's home state who had bipartisan support, J. Michelle Childs. Childs was on Biden's shortlist for the Supreme Court, but Jackson was the front-runner from the beginning. 

In one of the few instances in which Republicans discussed Jackson's race, Graham predicted the GOP would be accused of racism if senators asked Jackson hard questions. Nodding to Hawley, Graham said his questions about Jackson's time as district court judge, including her sentencing, is "very fair game" for the hearings.  

"It's going to be a couple interesting days," he said. 

Contributing: Rick Rouan, Phillip M. Bailey, Kevin McCoy, David Jackson, Chelsey Cox