Facing a line of questioning from US senators for the first time, Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson on Tuesday defended her record as a judge and public defender, vowing to rule from a “position of neutrality” if she is confirmed.
Questions from senators on both sides of the aisle included issues such as crime, race, handling cases on Guantanamo Bay detainees and religion.
Ms Jackson responded to Republicans who have questioned whether she is too liberal in her judicial philosophy, saying she tries to “understand what the people who created this law intended”.
She said she relies on the words of a statute but also looks to history and practice when the meaning may not be clear.
She defended work she did as a public defender and later in private practice representing four Guantanamo Bay detainees.
While some Republicans have complained that Ms Jackson was defending terrorists, she noted that defenders don’t pick their clients and are “standing up for the constitutional value of representation”.
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator, spoke on the 39 Guantanamo Bay detainees still in US custody, saying: “As long as they’re dangerous, I hope they all die in jail if they’re going to go back and kill Americans. It won’t bother me one bit if 39 of them die in prison. That’s a better outcome to letting them go.”
The South Carolina senator also grilled Ms Jackson, a Protestant, on her religious beliefs, asking her how often she goes to church and asked if she could fairly judge a Catholic.
Ms Jackson remained reluctant to detail her faith so as to be “mindful of the need for the public to have confidence in my ability to separate out my personal views”. She added it is “very important to set aside one's views” in writing opinions.
Dick Durbin, Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, attempted to deflect Republican criticism during his initial line of questioning and highlighted Ms Jackson's empathetic style that she uses when delivering sentences.
On critical race theory, a topic that has become a subject of debate in some public schools, she told Ted Cruz of Texas, who pushed her on the topic: “I’ve never studied critical race theory, I’ve never used it, it doesn’t come up in my work as a judge.”
Critical race theory proposes that any analysis of US law and policy must take into account how race and racism has shaped attitudes and institutions.
Opposition to the reported influence of the theory in elementary and secondary education has become a rallying point for Republicans heading into the midterm elections.
During the hearing, the Twitter account of the Republican National Committee sent out an animation linking Ms Jackson to critical race theory.
Mr Cruz also questioned Ms Jackson’s contention that she didn’t know whether the theory was part of the curriculum in US schools, referencing to her role on a school board. She said critical race theory is “an academic theory” taught in law schools and that as a board member, she is not involved in curriculum.
The White House said on Tuesday that Mr Biden had watched part of the hearings and was proud of Ms Jackson’s “grace and dignity".
The president was struck by how “she swiftly dismantled conspiracy theories put forward in bad faith”, said White House deputy press secretary Chris Meagher.
In responding to Republican accusations that she has been soft on child pornography, Ms Jackson told the Senate Judiciary Committee: “As a mother and a judge who has had to deal with these cases, I was thinking that nothing could be further from the truth.”
Josh Hawley questioned her on one case in which she sentenced a person to three months in prison despite the prosecution and sentencing guidelines both calling for longer terms.
“I am questioning your discretion,” the Missouri Republican told the nominee. “That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Ms Jackson said she takes such cases “very seriously”. She pointed out that the government in the case called for a below-guidelines sentence, that many other judges sentence below guidelines and that judges have to take other factors into account. The guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, she said.
Mr Hawley’s line of questioning was the latest in what has become one of the main Republican themes in Ms Jackson’s hearings, underscoring an issue the party is emphasising for the November congressional elections. Mr Cruz also questioned Ms Jackson’s sentences in some child pornography cases.
Tuesday's hearing was the first of two rounds of questioning Ms Jackson faces from the 22-member committee. The panel will then hear from a group of experts on Thursday before voting to move her nomination to the Senate floor.
Democrats hold a narrow majority in the Senate, which has the constitutional authority to approve judicial appointments made by President Joe Biden. All 50 Democrats appear likely to support her nomination, with a simple majority needed to confirm her to the Supreme Court.
If confirmed, Ms Jackson would be the 116th justice to serve on the high court, the sixth woman and the third black person. With Ms Jackson on the bench, the court for the first time would have four women and two black justices.
Mr Biden nominated Ms Jackson for the post in February. She would take the seat of Justice Stephen Breyer, who announced in January that he would retire after 28 years on the court.
Ms Jackson's confirmation to the Supreme Court would not alter the high court's 6-3 conservative majority, which includes three justices appointed by former president Donald Trump.
Agencies contributed to this report