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Ketanji Brown Jackson vows to be a neutral arbiter if confirmed to Supreme Court

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson delivered her opening remarks during the first day of her confirmation proceedings on March 21. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson told the Senate Judiciary Committee she will work to defend the Constitution and American democracy if she is confirmed to the Supreme Court, in her opening remarks to the panel on the first of four days of confirmation hearings.

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“I have been a judge for nearly a decade now, and I take that responsibility and my duty to be independent very seriously,” Jackson said. “I decide cases from a neutral posture. I evaluate the facts, and I interpret and apply the law to the facts of the case before me, without fear or favor, consistent with my judicial oath.”

Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said it was “a proud day for America” as the panel considered the nomination of Jackson, a historic choice by President Biden as he moves to fulfill his pledge to put the first Black woman on the Supreme Court in its 233-year history.

The hearing began at 11 a.m., and Jackson sat through opening statements from the 22 Republican and Democratic senators on the committee for nearly four hours.

Durbin set the tone for Democrats, praising Jackson’s “record of excellence and integrity” and “dedication to the rule of the law.” Republicans said they would press Jackson on her judicial philosophy but also complained about how Democrats and liberal groups had treated the judicial nominees of President Donald Trump.

Here’s what to know

  • On Tuesday and Wednesday, committee members will question Jackson. Thursday will feature testimony from outside witnesses. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told Jackson he hopes for “a candid conversation.”
  • Democrats are highlighting the historic nature of Jackson’s nomination. “The appointment of a Black woman to the United States Supreme Court, let’s be very blunt, should have happened years ago,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.
  • Besides being the first Black woman nominated to the court, Jackson also brings other less-common experiences, including service as a public defender. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called that service “very significant and important.”
  • Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) is among the Republicans who have sought to draw a contrast between the tone of the hearings for Jackson and those for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. “Engaging in the politics of personal destruction is not something we should ever aspire to,” Lee said.
  • Jackson, 51, has been nominated by Biden to replace retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Breyer, the high court’s oldest justice, has been a reliable liberal vote. Several Democrats praised his tenure. Sen. Christopher A. Coons (Del.) called him a model of a Supreme Court justice.”
1:04 p.m.
Headshot of Mike DeBonis
Mike DeBonis: A Supreme Court hearing is an opportunity for senators to question a nominee, but it also can be a high-profile platform for their personal obsessions. So it was not especially surprising Tuesday to see Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) engaged in a lengthy aside about the “dark money” conservative network engaged in judicial nominations. It’s a topic on which Whitehouse has taken to giving weekly floor speeches, and he spent roughly 10 minutes on the subject before questioning Jackson Tuesday — prompted, he said, by Republican attacks on Demand Justice, a Democratic-aligned dark-money group. “I’ll be the first to concede that there is dark money on both sides, and I hope very much we can get rid of it on both sides shortly by legislation,” he said. “But there is a difference, I believe, between a dark-money interest rooting for someone and right-wing dark-money interests having a role in actually picking the last three Supreme Court justices.”
Mike DeBonis, Congressional reporter covering the House of Representatives
3:47 p.m.
Headshot of Paul Kane
Paul Kane: Many Republicans have cited Democratic filibusters of Miguel Estrada in 2003 on his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. After several failed votes, Estrada withdrew his nomination and returned to private practice. In June 2005, just a few weeks after the bipartisan “Gang of 14” deal brought a cease-fire to judicial filibuster wars, the Senate confirmed the replacement nominee: Thomas Griffith. Griffith went on to serve 15 years on the D.C. Circuit, where he met Jackson. On Monday, Griffith was one of two people to introduce Jackson at her confirmation hearings. He remains in good standing with Republicans — particularly because he gave notice of his September 2020 retirement months in advance. That allowed Republicans, then in charge, to push through a conservative replacement to Griffith. The replacement, Justin Walker, had served as an aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Paul Kane, Senior congressional correspondent and columnist
3:39 p.m.
Headshot of Mike DeBonis
Mike DeBonis: Most Republican senators have been fairly circumspect ahead of the questioning of Jackson that is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. Not so for Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who closed out the senatorial opening statements Monday by firing a fusillade of attacks at Jackson, saying she has a questionable commitment for parental rights while “consistently call[ing] for greater freedom for hardened criminals.” And Blackburn took direct aim at Jackson’s service as a public defender, a career choice that other Republicans have attacked only obliquely: “You used your time and talent not to serve our nation’s veterans or other vulnerable groups, but to provide free legal services to help terrorists get out of Gitmo and go back to the fight.” It is also notable that these bare-knuckle attacks came from the Judiciary Committee’s only Republican woman; Blackburn joined the panel in 2018, just weeks after its all-male GOP complement had to hire a female outside prosecutor to question Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were teens. He has denied the accusation.
Mike DeBonis, Congressional reporter covering the House of Representatives
1:30 p.m.
Headshot of Mike DeBonis
Mike DeBonis: What to do when you’re participating in a Supreme Court confirmation hearing that is happening against the backdrop of the most serious military conflict and humanitarian crisis to strike Europe in nearly 80 years? Yes, a Supreme Court justice has a vanishingly indirect role in matters of geopolitics, but two Democratic senators found a way to shoehorn the Russian invasion of Ukraine into their remarks on Jackson: Both Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) made reference to their own recent travels to the Ukrainian border. “I saw people fleeing bombs and destruction — people, mostly women and children, who wanted nothing more than the kinds of freedoms that we have in this country,” Blumenthal said. “We have an obligation to preserve them, and my hope is that your nomination will help us do so.”
Mike DeBonis, Congressional reporter covering the House of Representatives
1:00 p.m.
Headshot of Mike DeBonis
Mike DeBonis: Many Republican senators promised ahead of the hearings that the proceedings would be “dignified” and “respectful.” That has not stopped several from running through more than three decades of conservative grievance over Democrats’ handling of judicial confirmations — name-checking nominees including Robert Bork, Janice Rogers Brown, Miguel Estrada and Brett M. Kavanaugh. Democrats, of course, have grievances of their own — none larger than the GOP Senate’s blockade of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016. But Republicans have chosen to put those past confirmation fights at the core of their rhetoric as they contend with a historic new Democratic nominee.
Mike DeBonis, Congressional reporter covering the House of Representatives
12:56 p.m.
Headshot of Ann Marimow
Ann Marimow: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) promised Jackson that she would not be asked during the hearings this week about her “teenage dating habits” or whether “you like beer.” Both are references to the contentious 2018 confirmation process for Brett M. Kavanaugh, which included allegations from California professor Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh had assaulted her as a drunk high school student at a party in the Washington suburbs where they both grew up. Kavanaugh vigorously denied the accusations and said they were part of an orchestrated attack by Democrats to block his nomination.
Ann Marimow, Legal affairs reporter
12:50 p.m.
Headshot of Marianna Sotomayor
Marianna Sotomayor: Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are at the ready to defend Jackson, with some preempting expected attacks on her as her confirmation hearing gets underway. “When @SenateGOP comes for Judge Jackson this week, remember: The American Bar Association gave her the HIGHEST possible rating of her qualifications to serve on SCOTUS. Her credentials surpass many sitting justices’,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) wrote on Twitter as several Republican senators began to outline their expected line of questioning over Jackson’s record. The Congressional Black Caucus created a “war room” in February to arm itself with facts about Jackson’s biography and brainstorm retorts to Republicans, who have accused her of benefiting from affirmative action and misconstrued her sentencing of child-porn offenders. With the House working outside of Washington this week, caucus members have been expressing their support for Jackson largely online, but Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) and Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) are in the hearing room to demonstrate solidarity among Black women.
Marianna Sotomayor, Congressional reporter covering the House of Representatives
12:08 p.m.
Headshot of Ann Marimow
Ann Marimow: Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) tells Jackson he has no problem with her past work as a public defender on behalf of Guantánamo Bay detainees. But he does plan to question her about court briefs she wrote advocating for the rights of detainees while in private practice. Jackson drafted one on behalf of a group of retired federal judges challenging the government’s detention review procedures. She filed a second brief on behalf of the libertarian Cato Institute, arguing that it was illegal to indefinitely detain lawful U.S. residents as “enemy combatants” in military custody. The Supreme Court dismissed the second case before oral argument when the Obama administration reversed course and charged the suspect in federal court.
Ann Marimow, Legal affairs reporter
12:03 p.m.
Headshot of Mike DeBonis
Mike DeBonis: For those mystified by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s (R-S.C.) mention of “this Arabella group,” that’s a reference to Arabella Advisors, an organization that provides services to liberal nonprofit groups.Some conservatives have started using Arabella as a catchall to refer to all so-called “dark money” spending on the left. But Arabella Advisors says its services are purely administrative and they have no role in making spending decisions for its clients. Graham further suggested a connection between Arabella and Demand Justice, the main liberal nonprofit engaged in judicial fights, that does not actually exist.“We do not work with Demand Justice, and we have nothing to do with the Supreme Court nomination process,” an Arabella spokesman recently told The Washington Post.
Mike DeBonis, Congressional reporter covering the House of Representatives
12:02 p.m.
Headshot of Seung Min Kim
Seung Min Kim: The first three senators to speak — Durbin, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) — have spent time rebutting the anticipated attacks against Jackson (or against themselves). But one poignant remark was from Leahy, who used his background as a state’s attorney in Vermont to fend off criticism from Republicans about Jackson’s record representing indigent clients. (She would be the first federal public defender on the Supreme Court in history).“I’m proud of being a former prosecutor,” Leahy said in his opening remarks. “But confidence in my prosecution of a case was strongest when I knew the defendant had the best possible representation.”
Seung Min Kim, White House reporter
11:56 a.m.
Headshot of Paul Kane
Paul Kane: In his opening statement, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) took up the time-honored tradition of the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member from the minority party: Complaining about not receiving enough documents about the Supreme Court nominee. This tactic has been used by both parties. A simple Google search of “Democrats [or Republicans] demand more documents [last name of SCOTUS nominee] Supreme Court [year of nomination]” turned up a long list of stories for every nominee of the last 17 years.
Paul Kane, Senior congressional correspondent and columnist
11:41 a.m.
Headshot of Mike DeBonis
Mike DeBonis: Durbin was the first of what are likely to be several Democratic senators to approvingly quote Andrew C. McCarthy, a columnist for the conservative National Review. McCarthy on Monday morning published a defense of Jackson’s record on sentencing child pornography offenders launched last week by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), an explosive claim that the White House has sought to aggressively rebut. While independent fact-checkers, including The Washington Post’s, have called Hawley’s allegations misleading and lacking context, senators love to cite members and sympathizers of the other party in making their points — and McCarthy, who said Hawley’s case “appears meritless to the point of demagoguery,” gave Democrats some extremely quotable material.
Mike DeBonis, Congressional reporter covering the House of Representatives
11:24 a.m.
Headshot of Seung Min Kim
Seung Min Kim: Inside the hearing room, there are little reminders everywhere that we are still in a pandemic. Rather than all 22 senators populating the dais, a second row has been set up with more than a half-dozen senators to ensure social distancing. Although the room may look crowded on camera, the public section behind Jackson’s guests and the media is largely empty. But it is far different from the near-empty room for the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett in October 2020.
Seung Min Kim, White House reporter
11:23 a.m.
Headshot of Ann Marimow
Ann Marimow: Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, immediately sought to head off anticipated Republican criticism of Jackson that she is “soft on crime” because of her experience as a federal public defender. He noted support for Jackson from several police organizations and her family connections to law enforcement. Two of Jackson’s uncles worked as police officers in Miami, including one who became the police chief. Her brother was a detective in Baltimore.
Ann Marimow, Legal affairs reporter
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