The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What conservatives asking for Ketanji Brown Jackson’s test scores are really doing

President Biden, left, listens as Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, center, makes remarks in D.C. on Feb. 25. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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At the start of an international military crisis, during the waning days of a time-stopping pandemic, and as the United States grappled with the aftereffects of the unhinged Trump administration, President Biden’s nomination to the Supreme Court of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a widely respected and unusually noncontroversial figure, came as something of a relief.

Democrats lauded her. Even some conservatives conceded she was an excellent pick. Jackson “is eminently qualified to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States,” former federal judge J. Michael Luttig wrote. “Indeed, she is as highly credentialed and experienced in the law as any nominee in history.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), of all people, said: “She’s a very smart, very accomplished attorney. I imagine she’ll be able to defend her litigation.”

Tough to complain, in other words. So naturally, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson had to ruin it.

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“It might be time for Joe Biden to let us know what Ketanji Brown Jackson’s LSAT score was,” he sneered on his show last week. “Wonder how she did on the LSATs, why won’t he tell us that?”

Ruth Marcus: I’ve covered the Supreme Court for years. Here’s what to know about Jackson’s nomination.

The implication was obvious — that Jackson had somehow sneaked into her nomination by way of affirmative action, that Biden was hiding the concrete evidence that would show she didn’t deserve a seat on the court.

Carlson’s comments were of a piece with the rumors Donald Trump spread about Barack Obama’s college grades during the 2012 election, suggesting that a Black candidate could not have met critical standards and should be forced to demonstrate his worth with a specific credential of the accuser’s choosing.

Of course, standards should be met. The Supreme Court should be made up of the most qualified, experienced and brilliant jurists. But of course, there’s no doubt that Jackson is one. All the evidence available — her Harvard Law School degree and position as an editor of the law review, her three federal clerkships, her years as a public defender and trial court judge, her more recent elevation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — makes this clear.

But Carlson’s griping reveals the ease and consistency with which conservatives have weaponized “deservedness” to hide racist attitudes under paper-thin critiques. It also underscores why this deservedness myth — the idea that there is an objective standard of merit that might confirm one’s worth, and that people of color especially need to prove they’ve reached it — deserves to die.

To begin with, these critics’ own deservedness is often questionable at best. What are Carlson’s qualifications for scrutinizing Supreme Court nominees? He has no legal experience and told the Columbia Journalism Review that he spent most of his college days drunk. Did Trump ever prove that he deserved his spot at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, much less the presidency? Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that Trump — for all his agitating over Obama’s grades — directed him to threaten his high school, colleges and the College Board with legal action to make sure his own records would not be released.

Michele L. Norris: The maddeningly limited vision of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s guidance counselor

More important than the blatant hypocrisy is the fact that deservedness, as understood in terms of raw achievement, has always been a questionable concept. The American ideal is that any success should be earned through pure effort, but this is rarely the case in reality. (The term “meritocracy,” when coined, was meant to satirize that view, not canonize it.)

The insistence that there is one specific, quantifiable measure of deservedness for a role like that of a Supreme Court justice foregrounds something that matters not at all — in Carlson’s estimation, Jackson’s long-out-of-date score on a multiple-choice exam — while backgrounding the less quantifiable things that actually do matter, whether specific expertise or the quality of one’s work. (Have you ever asked your personal physician what their MCAT score is? No. And why would you?)

It also ignores that grand success such as Jackson’s is a mixture of many components — hard work and talent, yes, but also luck, privilege, support from others. Jackson acknowledged as much in her remarks after the announcement of her nomination, thanking God, her family and her mentors, and even the blessing of being born in the United States, which she described as “the greatest beacon of hope and democracy” in the world.

Carlson and his cohort would like to play down these truths — not to mention the role that luck and privilege played in their own elevation — by erecting a series of ever-higher hoops only certain people must jump through to verify their suitability.

At a certain point, there are any number of people who might be fit for an important role. The “best” candidate for a Supreme Court seat is a largely subjective decision, a choice of one extremely talented, accomplished jurist among the country’s many incredible legal minds.

Jackson exceeds the standard. Whether she deserves her success is not Tucker Carlson’s question to ask or answer.

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