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Opinion Ketanji Brown Jackson may be the most popular court nominee in history

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

When President Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, Republicans knew they probably wouldn’t be able to stop her confirmation. But they hoped to make it controversial enough that the process would still be a political win for them.

With a new poll indicating surprisingly broad support for Jackson, it now looks as though they failed spectacularly on both counts.

First, let’s note that her confirmation now appears assured: When Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) announced last week that he’ll vote to confirm Jackson, it removed any doubt about whether all 50 Democratic voters would support her. Then Wednesday, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) announced her support, meaning there will be at least one Republican vote in favor. A couple more GOP senators might follow, such as Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah.

On the politics, the Republican failure is even more striking. Before Jackson’s confirmation hearings began, polls showed her with healthy approval ratings, even if many Americans didn’t yet know much about her. Now we have our first poll since her hearings, and the results couldn’t be clearer.

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Americans don’t just think Jackson should be on the Supreme Court. She might well turn out to be the most popular court nominee in history.

That’s what the new Marquette Law School poll suggests. It finds Jackson’s nomination is supported by 66 percent of Americans overall, including 95 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents and even 29 percent of Republicans.

If that result is supported in subsequent polls, it would make her the most popular nominee since pollsters started asking Americans about the court.

Let’s compare her with other recent nominees at the end of their hearings (using Gallup polls to keep things consistent). Amy Coney Barrett, the last nominee, was approved by about half of Americans following her 2020 hearings. Support for Brett M. Kavanaugh was in the mid-40s after his contentious hearings. Neil M. Gorsuch garnered 45 percent support.

In 2010, Elena Kagan earned 46 percent support after her hearings. A year earlier, Sonia Sotomayor received a healthy 55 percent support. On earlier nominations: Samuel A. Alito Jr. got 54 percent, John G. Roberts Jr. was the most popular before Jackson at 60 percent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg got 53 percent, and Clarence Thomas received 58 percent.

So the only one who came close to Jackson’s popularity was Roberts. It’s reasonable to suggest Jackson might be the most popular nominee in history because, while we don’t have polling data on nominees for the nation’s first two centuries or so, until the past few decades, most nominations were pretty uncontroversial. That suggests many, if not most, Americans had no particular opinion about them one way or the other.

We’ll need multiple polls to make final judgments about how the public views Jackson. But for the moment, it appears that if Republicans were hoping to turn Americans against her, they failed.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, Republicans’ criticisms were weak and repulsive. When they weren’t poring over old sentences she handed down in an unsuccessful attempt to tar her as soft on child pornography, they were bleating about transgender athletes, critical race theory and any other culture-war flash point they could conjure up.

Viewers were treated to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) pretending to be angry about a children’s book he said was present in the school Jackson’s daughter attends. At one point, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) lamented how much “jackassery” was in evidence, and there was little doubt that he was referring to his Republican colleagues.

Meanwhile, the racist accusation from right-wing media figures that Jackson couldn’t possibly be smart or qualified enough landed with a thud once Americans learned about her sterling résumé, then saw her calmly deal with hours of interrogation from the buffoons who make up the minority membership of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

You could argue that even if most Americans wound up supporting Jackson, that doesn’t much matter to Republicans. Perhaps all they wanted was to repeat the words “child pornography” a hundred times, so their QAnon base would remain in a state of agitation.

But they certainly didn’t convince many people in the middle, and the most significant political result of the hearings might have been to invigorate Democrats, both in their disgust with Republicans and their happiness at seeing Jackson on her way to confirmation.

Which means Jackson’s confirmation hearings were a victory all around: for Jackson herself, for the president who chose her, for the Democratic Party and for the Supreme Court, which will get a widely admired new justice. The only loser, it seems, was the GOP. Which is just what Republicans deserve.