The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans promised ‘no circus’ at Jackson’s hearing. Then the clown car rolled in.

From left, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Mike Lee (Utah) on Capitol Hill on March 21 during a confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The demagogue doubled down.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), the insurrectionist lawmaker who voted to overturn the 2020 election results and pumped a fist in solidarity with those rallying outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, last week launched a scurrilous attack against Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. “I’ve noticed an alarming pattern when it comes to Judge Jackson’s treatment of sex offenders, especially those preying on children,” he said of the mother of two daughters, accusing her of “a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes.”

The accusations were discredited as out of context and misleading. Denunciations rained on Hawley, including on Sunday in National Review from conservative legal writer Andrew C. McCarthy, who opposes Jackson but said Hawley’s “allegation appears meritless to the point of demagoguery.”

So what did Hawley do next? With the klieg lights on him at Monday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he repeated the discredited allegation — even using as examples the same seven cases he cited before. “In each of these seven, Judge Jackson handed down a lenient sentence that was below what the federal guidelines recommended and below what prosecutors requested,” he said.

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Once again, he left out the all-important details that Jackson followed the probation office’s sentencing recommendations in five of the seven cases — and that, in the United States overall, only 30 percent of sentences in such child pornography cases are within “federal guidelines.”

Jackson is within the mainstream of judicial behavior. In portraying her as having a soft spot for sex offenders “preying on children,” Hawley is outside the mainstream of honorable behavior.

The pedophilia smear put the lie to Republicans’ assurances that they would conduct the hearings with dignity.

“We won’t try to turn this into a spectacle,” proposed Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the committee’s ranking Republican.

“It won’t be a circus,” promised Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.).

Even Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), a regular ringmaster, said “this will not be a political circus.”

Then the clown car rolled in. Republicans used their opening statements to portray Jackson, the first Black woman nominated to the high court, as not just a pedophile enabler but also a terrorist sympathizer with a “hidden agenda” to indoctrinate Americans with the “racist vitriol” of critical race theory.

The Republicans on the panel piously announced they would not have a repeat of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation, during which he was accused of past sexual impropriety. Instead, they hit Jackson with factual impropriety.

Just one minute into the first remarks by a Republican on Monday, Grassley congratulated Republicans in the audience for their civility. “We’re off to a very good start. Unlike the start to the Kavanaugh hearings, we didn’t have repeated, choreographed interruptions. … Democrats interrupted me for more than an hour during my opening statement.”

Graham echoed that, during the Kavanaugh hearings, “Chairman Grassley couldn’t get the first word out of his mouth before they shut down the place. … I hope that doesn’t happen.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) agreed that “it’s at least good that this one got kicked off without a bunch of yokels having to be arrested and carried from the room.”

There was a good reason for that: As the senators surely knew, the Jackson confirmation hearing is entirely closed to the public. There are only 26 seats for the press (one-third the usual number) and 60 for senators’ personal guests.

The only yokels in the hearing room were on the dais.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) scolded Jackson, a former public defender, for the way she represented “people who have committed terrorist acts against the United States,” saying her “zealous advocacy has gone beyond the pale.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) seemed to be trying to associate the nominee with a host of evils in an inchoate tirade about “anarchists, rioters and left-wing street militias,” the “breakdown of society,” and “Soros prosecutors” who “destroy our criminal justice system from within.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), the final Republican to speak, accused Jackson of providing “free legal services to help terrorists get out of Gitmo and go back to the fight,” supporting “the radical left’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court” and harboring a “hidden agenda … to let violent criminals, cop killers and child predators back to the streets.”

As the Republican National Committee sent out multiple press releases during the hearing trying to tie Jackson to the phantom menace of critical race theory, Blackburn suggested that the Black nominee sees the United States as a “fundamentally racist country” and has a “personal hidden agenda to incorporate critical race theory into our legal system.”

Republicans were right. When you mix race-baiting with slanderous accusations about terrorists and pedophiles, it’s not a circus. It’s an auto-da-fé.