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Republicans telegraph their attacks on Ketanji Brown Jackson

The Supreme Court nominee’s critics on the right have begun an assault, charging that she is a ‘radical’ promoted by ‘dark money’ — and in one provocative case, demanding to see her LSAT scores

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden's Supreme Court nominee, met with both Senate leaders on March 2. (Video: Reuters)
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At least publicly, the Republican senators who will vote on whether to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court are keeping their powder dry, saying they are keeping an open mind as they prepare for personal meetings with the nominee and a four-day confirmation hearing later this month.

But senior party officials have begun quietly sketching out the critiques and challenges that Republicans plan to aim at Jackson when she faces several days of rigorous questioning from senators at the hearing, which is scheduled to begin March 21.

The clearest outline of the GOP’s emerging case against Jackson came from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who on Thursday telegraphed the range of attacks she can anticipate: that her background as a public defender means she’s soft on crime, that she won’t commit to opposing Supreme Court expansion, that she’s being promoted by so-called “dark money” groups.

The White House has worked hard to fend off in advance such attacks — by, for instance, swiftly rolling out endorsements from police groups and highlighting her family’s deep background in law enforcement — and to line up conservative legal luminaries willing to speak on the judge’s behalf. No Republican senators have disputed Jackson’s qualifications, which include nine years on the federal bench, a Supreme Court clerkship and a pair of degrees from Harvard.

“She’s clearly a sharp lawyer with an impressive résumé. But when it comes to the Supreme Court, a core qualification is judicial philosophy,” McConnell said Thursday. Citing the issues of crime, so-called “court-packing” and the influence of outside groups, McConnell said he wants to gain “more clarity about Judge Jackson’s positions during the vigorous and thorough Senate process to come.”

Others are calling Jackson a “radical,” though her jurisprudence has been in the mainstream of liberal legal thought. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who favored another Supreme Court hopeful, tweeted that Jackson’s nomination means “the radical Left has won President Biden over yet again.”

The criticism of Jackson from the conservative world outside the Senate has been harsher. Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Wednesday mocked her name — calling it “a name that even Joe Biden has trouble pronouncing” — and demanded to see her LSAT scores, a message many of Jackson’s supporters saw as racist.

Republicans are just beginning to delve into her record and may craft a more thorough strategy closer to the confirmation hearing. Many in the GOP have signaled that they have little appetite to fight Jackson’s nomination, especially since her ascension to the Supreme Court would not change its ideological balance, although some individual Republican senators are sure to make an aggressive case against Jackson under the bright lights of a confirmation hearing.

Some of the GOP’s highest-profile, hardest-hitting senators sit on the Judiciary Committee, including Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.), all potential presidential contenders.

Democrats say the Republican’s preliminary arguments show they are struggling to make any attacks stick against Jackson, who would make history as the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court in its nearly 233-year history. They have taken pains to highlight Jackson’s credentials at every turn, and especially that she has already been approved by the Senate three times — twice for federal judgeships and once for the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

“She has more experience as a judge than four of the people who are already on the Supreme Court,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said Thursday before meeting privately with Jackson. “Not that we’re keeping track.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee who met with Jackson earlier this week, said he avoided questions of substantive issues such as constitutional law or judicial temperament, saying he would hold off on any previews of his approach to the confirmation hearings until he finished vetting Jackson’s paperwork.

“It was a get-acquainted meeting,” Grassley said Thursday. “She’s very personable.”

And in interviews Thursday, Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee said questions about Jackson’s public defender background, and the broader crime issue, were fair game.

In the confirmation process for Jackson’s appointment last year to the D.C. Circuit, Republicans lobbed several questions at Jackson about her public defender work, including her representation of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Jackson would be the first federal public defender to sit on the Supreme Court, a distinguishing mark for the Biden administration which has sought to stock the federal bench with varied legal backgrounds.

“I do think that as an attorney, you have the obligation to make a vigorous defense, mount a vigorous defense for your clients, but you do get to choose the arguments that you make, however,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), noting that he has been asked to defend — and “rightly so” — his arguments when he served as Missouri’s attorney general and in private practice.

Hawley added: “She’s a very smart, very accomplished attorney. I imagine she’ll be able to defend her litigation.”

For as long as Jackson has been in Supreme Court contention, Democrats have aimed to dismiss any criticism of her tenure as a lawyer representing indigent defendants.

“Look, she was a public defender, but that doesn’t mean that she is soft on crime, that she’s pro-criminal,” said former senator Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who is serving as Jackson’s guide around the Capitol as she meets with senators. “There’s not a single public defender ever who was pro-crime. You know, they’re defending the Constitution and the rights of folks.”

Jones indicated that Jackson was prepared to respond to any criticisms of her public defender background, “because that work also helped form her and helped her (as) a judge.”

In his floor speech Thursday, McConnell invoked the issue of crime when talking about the debate over Jackson, without directly referring to the nominee’s public defender background.

“This is a moment when issues relating to the law and the judiciary are directly hitting American families — from skyrocketing murders and carjackings; to soft-on-crime prosecutors effectively repealing laws; to open borders,” McConnell said.

Those remarks drew criticism from Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has deployed a “war room” operation to immediately fend off any attacks against Jackson that they believe are rooted in race.

“That’s nothing but a racist deflection,” Watson Coleman said Thursday of McConnell’s comments. “It has nothing to do with what her record has demonstrated, it has nothing to do with whether she will be an appropriate and brilliant sitting jurist. It has nothing to do with the job that she is expected to do.”

In response, a McConnell spokesman said he has been “focused on exploding violent crime rates since long before this Supreme Court nomination.”

Another topic that is sure to surface is the contentious issue of adding seats to the Supreme Court — a position many liberal activists have endorsed but many Democrats oppose, including Biden.

McConnell said in his meeting with Jackson, he asked her whether — like Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg before her — she would take a position on “court-packing.” The minority leader said Jackson did not offer an answer.

“But curiously, the same radicals who want to turn Democrats into the party of court-packing also badly wanted Judge Jackson for this vacancy,” McConnell said. “It’s a matter of record that this nominee was the anointed favorite of these fringe groups.”

Jones said that in their meeting, Jackson told McConnell that the question of whether to expand the Supreme Court was in the purview of Congress, not judges. The White House said that was the same position taken by now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett in her confirmation hearings in 2020, although Barrett was answering a technical question about whether the Constitution said anything about the size of the Supreme Court, rather than her views on the issue.

McConnell’s “fringe group” comment was apparently referring to Demand Justice, an influential advocacy group created during the Trump-era to fight conservative nominees. The group’s president, Brian Fallon, said McConnell’s comments “is a tell that he has no hand to play against Judge Jackson on the merits.”

“It’s been widely reported that he thinks it is unwise for Republicans to go all out trying to defeat this pick, and this lame, guilt-by-association line of attack seems like his way of opposing her in the lowest-key way possible,” said Fallon, whose group launched a $1 million ad buy promoting Jackson immediately after her nomination.

Jackson’s courtesy meetings will continue next week, when she will continue to go down the Judiciary Committee roster and also meet with Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), who doesn’t sit on the panel that will question the nominee but is seen as perhaps the best chance to give Jackson a bipartisan vote.

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