Ketanji Brown Jackson begins US Supreme Court confirmation hearings

Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings for judge who could become highest court's first black woman justice

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The US Senate Judiciary Committee began historic confirmation hearings on Monday for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who would be the first black woman on the Supreme Court.

Barring a significant misstep by Ms Jackson, 51, a federal judge for the past nine years, Democrats who control the Senate by the slimmest of margins intend to complete her confirmation by the middle of April.

Ms Jackson delivered her opening statement on Monday and will answer questions from the committee's 11 Democrats and 11 Republicans over the next two days.

“I have been a judge for nearly a decade now, and I take that responsibility and my duty to be independent very seriously,” said Ms Jackson.

“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 favour, consistent with my judicial oath.”

Ms Jackson highlighted her more than 570 written decisions as a federal judge, noting that they “tend to be on the long side”

“That is because I also believe in transparency, that people should know precisely what I think and the basis for my decision.”

She also said that she stands “on the shoulders” of Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to serve as a judge on a federal bench — noting that the two even share the same birthday.

Democrats spoke favourably of Ms Jackson's nomination, citing the groundbreaking prospect of the first black woman serving on the Supreme Court.

“It's never happened before that the Senate is poised right now to break another barrier,” said Democrat Cory Booker. “We are on the precipice of shattering another ceiling.”

“We should rejoice because President Biden nominated someone that we've heard to be the 116th associate judge of the Supreme Court, who is extraordinarily talented and who also happens to be a black woman.”

Ketanji Brown Jackson is sworn in during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Getty Images / AFP

It is not yet clear how aggressively Republicans might test Ms Jackson's candidacy, given that her confirmation would not alter the court's 6-3 conservative majority.

Still, some Republicans said they could use her nomination to try to brand Democrats as soft on crime, an emerging theme in Republican midterm election campaigns.

Republicans drew a contrast to the handling of her confirmation process, comparing it to the acrimonious hearings surrounding Justice Brett Kavanaugh's 2018 hearing amid allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman in high school.

The opening statement from Lindsey Graham, one of the few Republicans to vote to confirm Ms Jackson to her current post on a federal district court in Washington, DC, suggest that he may not be amenable to voting for her again this time around.

Mr Graham expressed resentment that Mr Biden had passed over a shortlisted candidate from his home state of South Carolina, Michelle Childs, in favour of Ms Jackson.

“I want to know about your judicial philosophy,” said Mr Graham. “Because people on the left, the far extreme part of the left, believed that you were the best bet.”

Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominees have become an acrimonious partisan battleground in the past few years.

Ketanji Brown Jackson listens during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. AP

“Every court appointment is significant because so many vital matters are decided there,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Centre for Politics.

“Plus, many of these matters are hot-button social issues that move votes or motivate voters” such as abortion or gun rights, Mr Sabato told AFP.

Ms Jackson will be introduced by Thomas Griffith, a retired judge for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Lisa Fairfax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

Her testimony will give most Americans, as well as the Senate, their most extensive look yet at the Harvard-trained lawyer with a CV that includes two years as a federal public defender.

That makes her the first nominee with significant criminal defence experience since Thurgood Marshall, the first black American to serve on the nation's highest court.

In addition to being the first black woman on the Supreme Court, Ms Jackson would be only the third black justice, after Marshall and his successor, Justice Clarence Thomas, who was taken to hospital on Sunday with flu-like symptoms.

Several Republican politicians have criticised President Joe Biden for following through on his election-year pledge to select an African-American woman for the court.

“Black women are, what, 6 per cent of the US population?” said Ted Cruz, a senator from Texas. “He's saying to 94 per cent of Americans, 'I don't give a damn about you.'”

Ms Jackson has impeccable credentials, however, and another Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, told her colleagues to tread carefully.

The American Bar Association, which evaluates judicial nominees, on Friday unanimously gave Ms Jackson its highest rating.

Ms Jackson would take the seat of Justice Stephen Breyer, who announced in January that he would retire this summer after 28 years on the court.

She worked as a high court law clerk to Mr Breyer early in her career.

Democrats are moving quickly to confirm Ms Jackson, even though Mr Breyer's seat will not officially open until the summer. They have no votes to spare in a 50-50 Senate that they run by virtue of the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

But they are not moving as fast as Republicans did when they installed Amy Coney Barrett on the court little more than a month after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and days before the 2020 presidential election.

Agencies contributed to this report.

Updated: March 21, 2022, 9:51 PM