Jackson Vows to Be Independent on Supreme Court if Confirmed

WASHINGTON — Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on Monday emphasized “my duty to be independent” if confirmed as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, as Republican senators almost immediately began previewing attack lines accusing her of being lenient on crime.

On the first day of her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Jackson sat mostly in silence listening to 22 senators talk at length about what they wanted in a nominee. Race was not always an unspoken subtext, as Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, suggested that tough questioning would be criticized as racism.

“‘We’re all racist if we ask hard questions’ is not going to fly with us,” Mr. Graham said.

More than four hours after the hearing began, Judge Jackson, 51, cleared her throat, turned her microphone on and spoke for herself.

“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,” Judge Jackson, who currently serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, said in opening remarks that lasted about 13 minutes.

“I have been a judge for nearly a decade now, and I take that responsibility and my duty to be independent very seriously,” she said. “I decide cases from a neutral posture. 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.”

As the day began, some Democrats in the room were celebrating her nomination.

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who had no formal role in the proceedings, held up her phone to record as Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey spoke about the sheer joy he felt at a moment that he called, simply, “not a normal day for America.”

Among the Republicans, there were early flashes of gentility: Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s senior Republican, pulled out a chair for Judge Jackson just before the hearing began.

But that tone quickly receded as Republicans stressed that they would not personally attack Judge Jackson, while in the same breath accusing her of being lenient on child sexual abuse defendants and sex offenders. Several also suggested, without evidence, that she was aligned with progressive groups that are interested in adding justices to the Supreme Court.

Democrats saw the offensive coming, and tried to pre-empt the criticism in their prepared remarks.

“These baseless charges are unfair,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the committee’s chairman, adding, “They fly in the face of pledges my colleagues made that they would approach your nomination with civility and respect.”

Judge Jackson’s approval by the Senate would not change the ideological balance of the court. She is a former clerk for Justice Stephen G. Breyer, whose spot she would take in the court’s three-member liberal wing when he retires at the end of the current term. A review of a substantial sample of Judge Jackson’s roughly 500 judicial opinions suggests that she would be about as liberal as Justice Breyer.

With Judge Jackson likely to be confirmed, either with one or two Republican swing votes or with solely Democratic votes, Republicans are expected to use the hearings to direct the public’s attention to cultural issues that are likely to be flash points in the midterm elections.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, forecast an effort by her party to use the hearings as a venue to attack Judge Jackson and Democrats on such issues.

At one point, Ms. Blackburn spoke of “so-called white privilege” before wondering aloud to Judge Jackson whether it was her hidden agenda to incorporate critical race theory into the legal system. (There is no evidence to suggest that it is.)

When she was finally able to speak, Judge Jackson seemed to insulate herself from Republican attempts to paint her as a leftist who might overreach.

“I know that my role as a judge is a limited one, that the Constitution empowers me only to decide cases and controversies that are properly presented,” Judge Jackson said, “and I know that my judicial role is further constrained by careful adherence to precedent.”

Supporters of Judge Jackson in front of the Supreme Court on Monday.Credit…Shuran Huang for The New York Times

In an apparent effort to justify tough lines of questioning in the coming days, several Republicans, including Mr. Graham, seized on the explosive confirmation hearings of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018 as an example of unfair treatment of a Supreme Court nominee, asserting that Judge Jackson was already being afforded more respect and could expect a more civil tone in four days of hearings this week.

During his confirmation hearings, Judge Kavanaugh was accused by Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist, of sexual assault decades ago, when they were both high school students in the Washington suburbs.

Senator Lindsay Graham, Republican of South Carolina, seized on the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018 as an example of unfair treatment of a Supreme Court nominee.Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

“There won’t be this constant attack on you like Judge Kavanaugh and other conservative judicial appointments,” said Mr. Graham, who said that he had supported the nomination of another candidate, Judge J. Michelle Childs, over Judge Jackson.

“You are the beneficiary of Republican nominees having their lives turned upside down, and it didn’t work,” he added.

He made no mention of the fight over President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick B. Garland in 2016. Republicans refused to even grant him a hearing, waiting to see who would win the presidential election.

Mr. Garland is now the attorney general.

In their individual statements, the 11 Republicans on the committee also zeroed in on the idea that Judge Jackson’s past work as a public defender showed that she was soft on crime and was evidence of a broader effort by the Biden administration to install judges who favor mediating criminal sentences. Judge Jackson, who if confirmed would be the only justice on the Supreme Court to have experience as a public defender, has been confirmed by the Senate three times before, a record she pointed out on Monday.

On Monday, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, revived claims in his introductory statement that accused Judge Jackson of giving light sentences to child sexual abuse defendants. It is a criticism that experts say is misleading and ignores a debate within the judicial community about mandatory sentencing policies.

“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,” Judge Jackson said.

Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, accused Judge Jackson of giving light sentences to child sexual abuse defendants.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Judge Jackson told the committee that she was born the pride of two public-school teachers who had given her an African name that meant “lovely one.”

The witness section of the audience sitting behind her was filled with Black supporters, including White House officials, elected officials, family members and a handful of lawyers. Only a few were wearing masks, and the atmosphere was celebratory.

To Judge Jackson’s immediate right sat Dana Remus, the White House counsel, who had led her through near-daily prep sessions, often called murder boards, as the hearings drew closer. Ms. Remus sat next to former Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, who has served as Judge Jackson’s navigator through the interview process on Capitol Hill. He is expected to resume working with senators immediately after the hearings conclude, two people familiar with the White House strategy said.

During the hearing, Judge Jackson was flanked by her husband, Dr. Patrick Graves Jackson, who wiped away tears as she read her statement, and her daughters, Leila and Talia.

“I fully admit that I did not always get the balance right,” she told her daughters, referring to balancing her life as a mother with her work as a jurist. “But I hope that you’ve seen that with hard work, determination and love, it can be done.” The judge’s parents and brother also sat nearby.

Judge Jackson’s husband, Patrick, and daughters, Leila and Talia, attended the hearing.Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

Janette McCarthy Wallace, the general counsel for the N.A.A.C.P., who attended the hearing and sat in the witness section, said she was “overjoyed” to be in the room where history was happening. She said she came prepared to hear the criticisms from Republicans.

“I think that they are distractions from the basic fact that this is a person who is qualified to sit on this bench and who should be the next Supreme Court justice,” she said.

Asked what she expected to see from Judge Jackson throughout the hearing process, Ms. McCarthy Wallace paused and then offered a word: “Brilliance.”

Annie Karni, Adam Liptak and Glenn Thrush contributed reporting.

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