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Friday, April 01, 2022

How Low Will Senate Republicans Go on Ketanji Brown Jackson?

How Low Will Senate Republicans Go on Ketanji Brown Jackson?

Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

By Linda Greenhouse

“Ms. Greenhouse, the winner of a 1998 Pulitzer Prize, reported on the Supreme Court for The Times from 1978 to 2008 and was a contributing Opinion writer from 2009 through 2021.

When Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination reaches the Senate floor soon, every Republican who votes against her confirmation will be complicit in the abuse that the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee heaped on her.

Every mischaracterization of Judge Jackson’s record on the bench. Every racist dog whistle about crime. Every QAnon shout-out about rampant child pornography. Every innuendo that a lawyer who represents suspected terrorists supports terrorism.

So far, only one Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, has said she will vote to confirm Judge Jackson. The Republican senators who don’t disavow their colleagues’ behavior during last week’s confimation hearing will own it. All of it.

Every Republican voting no will be Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, asking, “On a scale of one to 10, how faithful would you say you are in terms of religion?” Each one will be Ted Cruz of Texas, distorting the argument in a law review note by the nominee to suggest slyly that beginning as a student she harbored an agenda of going easy on sex criminals.

Each Republican will even sink so low as to be Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, moving her pen across the page as she read the right-wing talking points and demanding that the nominee define the word “woman.” The definition that came to mind, although not to Judge Jackson’s lips, was “a mature female who can maintain her composure while being badgered on national television by posturing politicians.”

I have observed, and written about for this newspaper, every Supreme Court confirmation hearing since Sandra Day O’Connor’s in 1981, the first to be televised live. There have been good times and bad, obviously. The O’Connor hearing was one of the good ones. There were a few testy moments, thanks not to Democrats but to a few of the nominee’s fellow Republicans who thought her insufficiently dedicated to the anti-abortion cause. But the mood was decidedly one of bipartisan celebration for the barrier about to be broken by confirming the first woman to become a Supreme Court justice, and the vote on the Senate floor was 99-0.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, tried in her opening statement last week to summon such a sense of unity. “This entire hearing is about opening things up,” she said, noting that as the 116th justice, Judge Jackson would be the first Black woman. Senator Klobuchar continued, “We are a nation that must re-embrace the simple principle that unites us as Americans, and that is that our country is so much bigger in what unites us than what divides us.”

It was not only sad but also shameful that the Judiciary Committee’s Republicans couldn’t rise to the occasion. Granted, the goal of their leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has always famously been known to withhold as many votes as possible from a Democratic president’s Supreme Court nominee. (In 2016, of course, he deprived President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, of any vote whatsoever.)

The last Democratic nominee to go through a full confirmation process was Elena Kagan in 2010. Named by Mr. Obama, she had been the first female dean of Harvard Law School and was serving as the first female solicitor general. She was nominated to succeed Justice John Paul Stevens, who at that point was arguably the most liberal justice. The court’s ideological balance was not at stake; in fact, there was some reason to think that she might be a bit to Justice Stevens’s right. There was no objective reason to oppose her. She was confirmed with only five Republican votes, down from the nine Republicans who voted to confirm Sonia Sotomayor, Mr. Obama’s first nominee to the court, the year before.

The reasons Republicans gave for opposing Solicitor General Kagan were standard fare. They portrayed her as a closet political activist who, in the words of Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, had failed to provide assurance that she would “change her political ways or check her political instincts or goals at the courthouse door.” One of her home-state senators, Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, who had introduced her at the committee hearing and was widely expected to vote for her, voted no at the last minute, having apparently discovered that she lacked judicial experience.

While the opposition was tedious and vapid, it wasn’t mean. No one accused her of coddling pedophiles or terrorists. The senators were following their leader. It was just business.

The difference between then and now is stark. The alternating question periods between Democratic and Republican senators induced a kind of whiplash. While the Democrats celebrated Judge Jackson’s accomplishments and the symbolism of her nomination, the Republicans oozed venom. Their collective fixation on her irrefutably mainstream sentencing practices in cases involving child sexual abuse imagery — a topic seemingly plucked from thin air because there was nothing of substance for them to complain about — verged on the unhinged.

“Every judge who does what you are doing is making it easier for the children to be exploited,” Senator Graham exclaimed, evidently overcome with remorse for having voted less than a year ago to confirm her to the federal appeals court on which she now sits.

It was inevitable that some Republican would bring up the mother of all confirmation battles, the defeat of President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Judge Robert Bork in 1987. It turned out to be Senator Cruz. “It is only one side of the aisle, the Democratic aisle, that went so into the gutter with Judge Robert Bork that they invented a new verb, to ‘bork’ someone,” he said.

If Senator Cruz meant to justify himself and his fellow Republicans for “borking” Judge Jackson, he missed a crucial difference. In 1987, six Republicans joined with all but two Democrats to reject the Bork nomination for what the nominee had said and written. Judge Bork actually criticized a key measure of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he said embodied a principle of “unsurpassed ugliness.” He really did believe that the First Amendment protected only pure political speech and not other means of expression. He called the Supreme Court’s 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which recognized a constitutional right to contraception, an “unprincipled” judicial overreach. That he would vote to repudiate Roe v. Wade when the opportunity arose was a given.

In other words, the Bork hearing was really about Robert Bork and what impact he would have on the Supreme Court if confirmed to what was then the swing seat. The Republicans’ role in the Jackson hearing was not remotely about Ketanji Brown Jackson. It was about concocting a scary version of a Black woman to serve up to their base. In addition to associating her with crime and criminals, they repeatedly questioned her representation of Guantánamo detainees.

Memories are short and selective. April 7 will be the fifth anniversary of the Senate’s confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch. Before he became a judge, he held a senior political position in the Justice Department during the presidency of George W. Bush. In that position, in 2006, he sent an email to a friend with the subject line “Elite Law Firm Pro Bono Work for Terrorists.” His email forwarded a blog post from the right-wing American Spectator deploring the growing involvement of prominent law firms in providing representation to Guantánamo detainees. His message read: “I thought you mind [sic] find this of interest. It seems odd to me that more hasn’t been made of this. See esp. list of firms below from Spectator blog.”

His friend, whose name had been blacked out, replied to the email by saying, “The great fallacy here, of course, is that this work helps to protect the rights of Americans. By definition, the only rights at issue here are those of suspected alien terrorist enemies during time of war.” Mr. Gorsuch’s reply in turn: “Exactly.”

The email exchange was among the documents the White House turned over to the Judiciary Committee at the time of the Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination. During the confirmation hearing, Senator Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who now heads the committee, asked him about it, noting that Chief Justice John Roberts had spoken proudly about his own representation of unpopular clients during his legal career.

Senator Durbin’s question penetrated, just for a moment, the nominee’s cool demeanor. “The email you’re referring to is not my finest moment, blowing off steam with a friend, privately,” he replied. “The truth is, I think my career is better than that.”

Whether it has proved to be, whether the hotheaded administration lawyer has subsequently redeemed himself, is a judgment I’ll leave to others for now. But here’s a judgment I can make with confidence: If and when Senators Cruz, Graham and the rest of them seek redemption for their behavior last week, they won’t find it.“

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