Jackson faces racially charged questioning from GOP senators
But as the first black woman appointed to the High Court, Jackson also bears some burdens that have become apparent during her confirmation hearings. She has been subjected to questioning by some Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee that have been explicitly or implicitly focused on race.
She was asked about critical race theory and the history of America’s slave past and whether she was too lenient in her sentencing as a trial judge – questions that are cultural flashpoints in the debate caustic politics of today, but the first two of which have little to do with the actual work of the Supreme Court.
The grillings she endured are a reminder that black Americans are seen and often judged through a different lens than white Americans — and also have life experiences that white Americans don’t share.
The questioning touched on a range of other predictable issues: abortion, gun rights, his portrayal as a public defender, the packing of the courts, his judicial philosophy. But the most charged exchanges were on issues that have clear racial components.
References to Martin Luther King Jr. punctuated opening comments by some GOP senators. Lawmakers cited King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington, where he said he had dreamed that one day “all Americans will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. Republicans used King to express their solidarity with those sentiments, then used him as a shield behind which they then hammered Jackson with racially charged questions.
She had a contentious exchange with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) on Wednesday about her sentencing practices in cases involving child molesters and pornography, with Graham repeatedly interrupting her as she was trying to answer and the chairman of the committee, Senator Richard J. Durbin asked Graham to let her speak.
Graham made it clear he was miffed that President Biden did not appoint South Carolina Federal District Judge J. Michelle Childs, whom he endorsed, and instead chose the more liberal Jackson. It was the same Lindsey O. Graham who voted last year to confirm Jackson to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
On Tuesday, Jackson was asked by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) about critical race theory, which has become the target of Republicans in their political campaigns as they seek to elevate education issues and the role of parents in school curricula ahead of midterm elections.
She was asked about this because she sits on the Georgetown Day School Board of Directors. Cruz was offended by some of the books on race that are recommended for students there — including one on critical race theory — and apparently that the school embraces social justice as part of its overall mission. .
Political debate around critical race theory has focused on public schools. Jackson pointed out that Georgetown Day is a private school, a school that was founded as an integrated school in 1945 at a time when schools in the district were separate. She also said that the board she sits on has no role in program or reading matters and that the issue raised by Cruz has nothing to do with her role as a judge.
She was asked by Cruz about the “1619 Project”, the New York Times Magazine’s venture to reinterpret the story of America’s founding. She had cited the project and the driving force behind it, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, in a 2020 speech at the University of Michigan.
The 1619 Project is now a bestselling book, but it has drawn criticism from several notable historians for some of its historical interpretations. Jackson quoted Jones and the project as part of a speech about the role of black women in American history. His specific references did not endorse historical claims that have been disputed but pointed out that the founders who wrote the Constitution built around the ideas of liberty, equality and democracy did so at a time when slavery existed in colonies for more than 150 years.
“Thus, it is Jones’s provocative thesis that the America that was born in 1776 was not the perfect union it claimed to be, and that it was in fact only through hard work, struggle and to the sacrifices of African Americans over the past two centuries that the United States finally became the free nation that the editors originally touted,” she said, according to a transcript of the speech.
She was arraigned Tuesday by Cruz and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on the issue of sentencing convicted pedophiles and child sex predators. They said, as Graham said, that Jackson gave shorter sentences than those recommended by prosecutors. This topic was not raised in any significant way when Jackson was nominated to serve on the appeals court less than a year ago.
Democrats have said the Republican charges are a misrepresentation of Jackson’s record and what’s really at issue is a political matter for Congress, as other justices have done as Jackson did in setting penalties. Prior to this week’s hearings, with Hawley making clear his intention to focus on the judge’s sentencing practices, the issue had been discredited even by some conservatives.
Beyond the details of Jackson’s conviction record cited by senators, the issue of criminal justice has been used by conservatives in political wars to accuse liberals of being soft on crime and more attentive to the rights of criminals. than the rights of victims.
Supreme Court confirmation hearings have become a predictable policy and more performative than an honest inquiry. There are still moments of rigorous questioning and intellectual discussion about the court, cases, and judicial philosophy. But partisanship rules the courtroom — as it rules so much else — and few, if any, votes are likely to be changed by the exchanges between senators and Jackson.
Senators perform in front of a variety of audiences, and the audiences provide them with a convenient platform to position themselves for the future. It’s clear that for those like Cruz, Hawley and others, the people they’re trying to reach are conservative voters who might be attracted to them if they run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
Given this environment, the guiding principle for any candidate is: first do no harm. That’s Jackson’s approach this week. She was cautious and generally constrained throughout, offering her methodology as a jurist rather than stating a philosophy and sometimes framing her approach to her role as a judge in conservative language.
In an age of hyperpartisanship, Supreme Court confirmation hearings can become political spectacles, the most recent being Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s hearings in 2018. His appointment had a direct bearing on the ideological makeup of the court .
Jackson’s appointment will not change the court in any way, as she will join the liberal bloc as the successor to outgoing Justice Stephen G. Breyer. The ideological balance will remain at 6-3 in favor of the conservatives. It’s one of the reasons audiences haven’t yet become as supercharged as audiences of the past.
But while the audiences lacked the ultimate drama of some in the past, they were nonetheless eye-opening, providing another window into how race shapes and sometimes distorts perceptions and attitudes. For the first black woman appointed to the Supreme Court, it was a price to pay.