In the midst of the loud, dreadful—and grossly distorted—attacks on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, one of her many admirable qualities impressed me the most.
Judge Jackson, the daughter of educators, is a superb educator as well. I found myself fascinated by her explanations of aspects of the Constitution and several important amendments, tying them succinctly to Supreme Court rulings in language that was clear and accessible to non-lawyers like me.
Despite the ugliness of several persistent and QAnon-inspired lines of questioning, these hearings were exemplary in one large sense because of the nominee herself.
And not just because she maintained her composure during the brutal assaults on her record and demonstrably false imputations on her character.
In the recent past, Supreme Court nominees have provided platitudes and non-answers. Eager to avoid controversy, judges have too often hidden behind the legitimate argument that a question might some day be related to a case before them—and thus was out of bounds.
Judge Jackson rarely did so. Her responses provided a mini-civics course—often in answering her critics. She deftly detailed the role of a judge/justice and the importance of public defenders.
As her interrogators repeatedly sought to depict her as soft on crime and out of the mainstream in her sentencing in child pornography cases, she explained that judges were hindered by the failure of Congress to grapple with a serious discrepancy in the sentencing guidelines as they pertain to child pornography.
I found that implied criticism quite brave, especially as we learned subsequently that some of the former President’s judicial appointees, who had received “yes” votes from Cruz, Hawley, et al, had similar sentencing patterns and had also expressed frustration with the guidelines.
Though the Republican Senators accepted no responsibility, Senator Dick Durban (D.-IL), the Committee Chair, certainly did. He acknowledged that Congress has shied away from this difficult issue in recent years and must confront it.
I was so struck by her teaching that I wondered if anyone else had written about it. Indeed, I found a lengthy Twitter string on the topic.
Joyce White Vance, a former US attorney, now a law professor and highly respected media commentator on legal matters, started things off with this assessment:
“Judge Jackson is at her best when she’s explaining the Constitution and how the text is interpreted. If she’s confirmed, her opinions will read with the clarity that helps non-lawyers in the public understand the law. We need judges like this on the bench.”
That tweet was followed by many others from non-lawyers who expressed the same appreciation that I felt. One said the nominee’s explanation of the separation of powers “should be required watching by every student in America.”
Another referred to Judge Jackson’s statement during the hearings that she makes sure defendants understand the judicial process. I wonder how many judges take the time to do that, as it seems to be a fair and solid way to improve respect for the law and the judicial system.
The hearings, I believe, served as a teachable moment for America—and this Judge was the ideal person to provide it.
She emphatically embraces her identity and responsibilities as a Black American woman. She has been praised by many as a mentor. On the bench, her presence, demeanor, and intellect will be an inspiration to young Black girls—as well as to us all.
Even before the hearings, a Gallup poll found that 58% of Americans said the Senate should vote to confirm her. Gallup noted that this support is “10 percentage points above the historical norm, while the percentage without an opinion is 11 points lower.” No other nominee since Chief Justice John Roberts has received that level of support.
I’m guessing that figure would be even higher if the poll had been taken after the hearings.
Now that Senator Susan Collins (R.-ME) has announced her support, Judge Jackson’s confirmation seems assured–though the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are threatening to block her nomination from reaching the full Senate for a vote. That would be a further disgrace to them, but it won’t prevent her from taking her seat on the Court.
It’s true that Judge Jackson’s appointment will not change the balance on the Court: it will still have a 6-3 conservative (I believe radical) majority. But she has already shown her wisdom, intellect, compassion, strength, and grace; her presence will be significant.
She is renowned for her lengthy opinions, which she explained were her attempts to be transparent.
Under the circumstances, she may well deliver dissents that, in the words of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “…speak to a future age.”
“…the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”
What impact might Judge Jackson have on the current Justices?
She has too much humility to begin her tenure as an Associate Justice by lecturing her colleagues on jurisprudence.
But she will be assuming her position on a court whose majority has disregarded Constitutional precedents in several of its rulings, has further weakened the Voting Rights Act, and has delivered some hastily determined unsigned decisions late at night.
Their lack of impartiality and rationales with no apparent basis in law have been broadly condemned. Questions about those who backed them for the Court raise serious issues about the impact of dark money on their rulings.
At least two of them have demonstrated non-judicial temperaments in their hearings when they were accused of sexual improprieties. One of those is closely associated with high-level participants in the plans to overthrow our government that culminated in the January 6th, 2021 Insurrection.
After watching her in the hearings, I think we should be honored and grateful that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is eager to bring her prodigious talents to this Supreme Court at this time in our nation’s history.
Though my expectations concerning the Court’s majority are low, they could learn a great deal from her about the law, the Constitution, personal dignity and integrity, love for country, and life in America today.