Historic Supreme Court Hearings Begin for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson

Appellate Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is President Joe Biden’s pick to replace Justice Stephen Breyer on the U.S. Supreme Court and Monday marked the beginning of her formal approval process.

Senate confirmation hearings for Jackson began with opening statements from both sides of the aisle, and from Jackson herself, who alluded to the historic nature of her nomination.

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“I stand on the shoulders of so many who have come before me including Judge Constance Baker Motley, who was the first African American woman to be appointed to the federal bench and with whom I share a birthday,” Jackson said. “And like Judge Motley, I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building, equal justice under law are a reality and not just an ideal.”

If confirmed, Jackson, who currently serves on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, would be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She’s expected to face tough questioning from senators in the coming days.

“This nominee in particular will be very careful about a lot of the politically divisive issues that the senators are going to ask about. Not only because it’s tradition, but because the court is hearing a lot of those issues right now,” said Amanda Savage, an associate professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago. “So the court has pending cases on abortion. It has pending cases on immigration law, on gerrymandering. A lot of the issues that senators might want to focus on, Judge Jackson has a very strong case for not answering because they’re before the court as we speak.”

If confirmed, Jackson would also be the first former public defender to sit on the Supreme Court. Republicans are expected to scrutinize her criminal defense record and suggest she’s soft on crime.

“There has been historically a bias towards prosecutors and interestingly, prosecutors are not subjected to the same sort of scrutiny as public defenders nor are corporate attorneys as far as their impartiality,” said Audra Wilson, president and CEO of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. “The public defenders have always been scrutinized much more harshly and there's no reason to think that her record is not going to be dissected as a public defender.”

Democrats, on the other hand, say Jackson’s experience as a public defender, along with her work as a federal district judge and member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, make her a strong contender for the Supreme Court. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said Monday her varied background makes her a “mastery of our justice system.”

“Judge Jackson’s experienced as a Black woman, her experience as a former federal defender, her unique understanding of the criminal justice system and how Black and Brown people are adversely affected and impacted in a very unique way in the criminal justice system is a voice that needs to be present on the Supreme Court,” said Kalia Coleman, former president of the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin questioning Jackson Tuesday and Wednesday. The hearings will conclude Thursday with testimony from the American Bar Association and outside witnesses. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee will then vote whether or not to confirm her, followed by a full Senate vote. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), who’s leading the hearings as chair of the committee, has said he hopes for a bipartisan vote, even though Democrats don’t need Republican Support to confirm Jackson. They can do so with their 50 votes and Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie.

“I think the Democrats job is pretty easy, both because Judge Jackson’s nomination is historic and she’s got the stellar credentials and she’s a very easy sell on why she should be a Supreme Court Justice and they have the votes. And so at the end of the day it's exceedingly unlikely that Judge Jackson is not confirmed to the U. S. Supreme Court,” said Savage.  

Audra Wilson of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law notes this is not the first time Jackson has gone through a Senate Confirmation hearing. She has received three confirmations prior to becoming a Supreme Court nominee for her positions on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, her job as a federal trial judge and her current role as a federal appellate judge.

“It’s important to note that she is probably one of the most scrutinized individuals in the legal profession,” said Wilson. “It’s going to be revolutionary, quite frankly, in watching this nomination, in the sense that having the first public defender that’s going to be sitting on the Supreme Court is going to be the blueprint for how future nominations go when there are others who are coming from the non-traditional prosecutor or corporate backgrounds to ascend the Supreme Court. So it’s going to be historic in so many ways.”

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