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For Jackson, path to the Supreme Court is paved with smiles and small talk

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) meets with Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

First came the cameras. Then came the chitchat. And then out came the binder.

Inside the robin-egg-blue walls of Sen. Susan M. Collins’s private office Tuesday, a ritual exertion of Washington power unfolded as Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson visited the Maine Republican for a closed-door confab.

A gaggle of reporters and photographers was ushered in to momentarily behold the scene. The two women bantered about Jackson’s chief connection to the Pine Tree State, her engagement in Bar Harbor more than 20 years ago. And when a reporter pressed for comment, Collins gestured at her coffee table — and the binder.

“I have a nice notebook of the issues that I’m going to raise, and I really appreciate the opportunity to sit down with the judge,” Collins said. “We’ll see how things go.”

Nothing so encapsulates the finely choreographed nature of the modern Supreme Court confirmation process as the round-robin of senatorial interviews — a weeks-long process where the nominee clomps through Capitol Hill hallways with an entourage of Secret Service agents and White House aides, gripping and grinning with the lawmakers who hold the confirmation in their hands.

So far, at least, Jackson’s nomination is on a much more placid trajectory than the past two high-court nominees, Brett M. Kavanaugh, whose confirmation was upended by late-breaking sexual assault and misconduct accusations that he vigorously denied, and Amy Coney Barrett, who was rubber-stamped by the Senate in record time one month before the 2020 presidential election.

Republicans have signaled that Jackson will face tough questions about her past work as a public defender, her views on Supreme Court expansion and other issues when her hearings begin on March 21. But, until then, Jackson’s main task is to traipse from office to office, gabbing with senators — many of whom are eager to make a public show of their constitutional advise-and-consent powers before granting Jackson a lifetime appointment.

Reflecting the sensitivity of that task, several recent nominees have been assigned a former senator to smooth their path to confirmation — in Jackson’s case, former senator Doug Jones (D-Ala.) — under the theory that it takes a senatorial ego to know one.

“It really means a lot,” Jones said of the interview process in a brief interview Tuesday. “It gives the senators a chance to really take what they know, ask some questions and get ready for the hearings, and that’s what we’re doing as well.”

And, he said, it gives Jackson a chance to defuse whatever tensions might develop over her jurisprudence: “The one thing that the judge is very good at is explaining that reasonable people can disagree,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that you have an agenda.”

While the routine can be illuminating, or at least self-aggrandizing, for the senators, it can be disorienting for the nominee shuttling from office to office for hours on end.

“I saw you going to another meeting earlier today on this same floor, I think,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told Jackson Tuesday, after commenting on the “powerful” moment of meeting the first-ever Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court.

Jackson jokingly responded: “I don’t know where I am.”

While some senators say there is an informal understanding that what is said inside the meetings stays inside the meetings, their contents are hardly sacrosanct. And that, people who have participated in the meetings say, tends to keep conversations focused on personal matters and the general realm of jurisprudence.

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“Well, these nominees don’t say much — they’ve all been schooled going back to Ruth Bader Ginsburg not to really answer much of anything,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said to Fox News Radio host Guy Benson last week after meeting with Jackson, before demonstrating why nominees tend to keep their guard up.

McConnell recounted pressing Jackson on whether she favors expanding the Supreme Court beyond its current nine members — an idea that has been floated by some Democrats to combat the high court’s conservative tilt. It’s an idea that McConnell and other conservatives detest, and one that outgoing Justice Stephen G. Breyer, whom Jackson clerked for and is seeking to replace, publicly criticized.

“I didn’t get an answer to that,” McConnell said, before saying there was “no question” she had the academic and judicial qualifications needed to sit on the Supreme Court.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) caused a stir with his interview with future justice Neil M. Gorsuch in 2017, where he pressed the jurist on then-president Donald Trump’s attacks on federal judges who had issued rulings against him.

Gorsuch told Blumenthal that the remarks were “demoralizing” and “disheartening,” which the senator quickly relayed to the press — prompting Trump to blast Blumenthal and call the comments “mischaracterized.” (Gorsuch later confirmed the remarks, repeating those very words under questioning from Blumenthal in the public Judiciary Committee hearing.)

There will be no Blumenthal-fueled drama this time around. He emerged from his meeting with Jackson on Tuesday declaring himself “deeply impressed.”

Asked why someone like himself, who is a near-guaranteed vote for confirmation, would even bother with a meeting, Blumenthal said it was important to get a sense of a nominee — “the capacity for growth, the connection to individual people, the personal empathy.”

“Because at the end of the day, it’s the person that we are confirming, not a set of legal principles or past opinions and decisions,” he said.

Those looking at the power of personal connections — and their limitations — might take stock of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who had publicly suggested before Jackson’s nomination that Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman was “offensive” and “an insult to Black women.”

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Biden went on to nominate an acquaintance of Cruz’s — Jackson was a Harvard Law School classmate and fellow law review editor. After his own meeting with Jackson on Tuesday — albeit one of the few where photographers or reporters were not invited — he was complimentary of the nominee and her time at Harvard.

“She was certainly bright and capable and respected, and, as far as I can tell, none of that has changed,” he said, without suggesting she had come any closer to winning his vote: “I expect a vigorous confirmation hearing focused on substance and issues and her record.”

And then there’s Collins, who is in a category of her own when it comes to Supreme Court confirmations.

As one of only two sitting Republican senators who voted for both of Barack Obama’s successful Supreme Court appointees — and the only one who called for hearings on his ill-fated nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 — she has been eyed by top Democrats as Jackson’s most likely GOP vote.

Collins, in fact, voted for every Supreme Court nominee that has come to the Senate floor until Barrett in 2020. (That nomination, she explained, came too close to the presidential election to proceed, especially given the precedent Republicans had set with Garland four years prior.)

So after a little more small talk, out went the media, and out came the binder.

Jones said Jackson came prepared for a thorough conversation with Collins — “She takes it very serious and so we were expecting to go a little bit longer than some of the others,” he said — and she got one. What had been scheduled as a one-hour meeting went on, and on, and on some more.

Collins emerged more than 90 minutes later, delivering a largely positive verdict, praising both Jackson’s credentials and her judicial manner: “She takes a very thorough, careful approach in applying the law to the facts of the case, and that is what I want to see in a judge.”

Collins said she would withhold judgment until Jackson completed her hearings, but she gave no indication that Jackson’s nomination had departed from expectations.

“To spend more than an hour and a half, one-on-one, with a judicial nominee,” she said, “it gives you quite a bit of information.”