Biden’s Supreme Court nominee emphasises ‘neutral’ approach to cases

Joe Biden’s US Supreme Court nominee highlighted her “neutral” approach to judicial decision-making as the Senate judiciary committee kicked off the public vetting process for the appeals court judge who would be the first black woman on America’s highest court.

Ketanji Brown Jackson on Monday faced the committee’s 22 members for opening statements, which will be followed by a question-and-answer session beginning on Tuesday. The committee will vote on whether to advance her nomination after the hearing concludes later this week, after which the full Senate will render its final verdict on whether she will fill the lifetime seat vacated by Stephen Breyer.

“I decide cases from a neutral posture,” Jackson told the committee during her opening remarks. “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”.

Democratic members of the committee, and even some Republicans, focused on the historic resonance of Jackson’s nomination. “With your presence here today, you are writing a new page in the history of America, a good page,” said Patrick Leahy, a Democratic senator for Vermont.

“Today, America is witnessing the literal bending of the arc,” Cory Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, said, in a nod to a Martin Luther King quote — “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.

Thom Tillis, a Republican senator from North Carolina, also praised Jackson’s temperament, upbringing and honesty. The judge’s nomination was “making the dreams of others appear to be within reach”, he said.

Supreme Court confirmations have become an increasingly fraught political process in recent years. Barring any surprises, Jackson is expected to receive overwhelming support among the Senate’s Democrats and possibly some backing among moderate Republicans.

Republican members of the judiciary committee vowed to scrutinise Jackson’s decisions as a judge and a member of the US sentencing commission.

“It appears that sometimes . . . zealous advocacy has gone beyond the pale and in some instances, it appears that your advocacy has bled over into your decision making process as a judge,” said John Cornyn, a Republican senator from Texas.

Marsha Blackburn, a Republican senator from Tennessee, gave among the most confrontational opening statements, accusing Jackson of efforts to “protect convicts”.

“What’s your hidden agenda?” Blackburn asked.

Dick Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois and Senate judiciary committee chair who is presiding over Jackson’s hearing, hit back at what he called some “last-minute attempts to derail” her appointment, including accusations from the opposition that she had received support from radical left groups. Her record belied that claim, he added.

Durbin defined previous accusations that Jackson had been “soft on crime” as “baseless” charges.

Republican lawmakers also promised to quiz Jackson on her “judicial philosophy,” arguing courts should interpret the law as it was written rather than shape policy via a flexible reading of the constitution.

Jackson told the committee she understood her “role as a judge is a limited one”.

Most Republican senators said they did not expect Jackson’s hearing to become a spectacle.

Jackson told the panel she had met 45 senators, including one-on-one meetings with each member of the judiciary committee. The American Bar Association’s federal judiciary committee deemed her “well qualified” to serve on the court, its highest rating.

Thomas Griffith, a retired federal appeals court judge appointed by George W Bush who introduced Jackson, said that while they did not always agree on the outcome of cases, “I respected her diligent and careful approach, her deep understanding and her collegial manner, indispensable traits for success” as a Supreme Court justice.

Even if she is likely to be confirmed, some Republican senators could use Jackson’s hearing as an issue to “gin up the base” ahead of midterm elections in November, or to further their own presidential ambitions, said Barbara Perry, Supreme Court and presidency scholar at the University of Virginia.

While Jackson may encounter Republican pushback, Perry said that unless something unexpected emerged, it was “probably the case that she will be confirmed”.

Despite the typical political wrangling around Supreme Court appointments, some experts have argued Jackson’s confirmation just last year by a bipartisan Senate vote to the federal appeals court in Washington DC — and before that as a member of the US sentencing commission and as a federal district judge — could work in her favour.

Jackson’s confirmation would allow Biden to fulfil his presidential campaign pledge to appoint the first black woman to the Supreme Court. It also represents his first, and potentially only, opportunity to put his stamp on the US’s highest court, a move that would encourage the Democratic party’s progressive base after the three justices appointed by Donald Trump tilted the bench’s balance 6-3 in favour of conservatives.

Jackson’s legal career has spanned Harvard Law School and clerking for Breyer on the Supreme Court to private practice and a role as a federal public defender. A bipartisan group of senators on Monday praised her career path. If confirmed, she would be the first justice who previously worked as a public defender.

While she would not alter the bench’s ideological balance, Jackson’s appointment would stop liberals losing further ground on the court.

On Sunday, the court announced that Justice Clarence Thomas — who, after Breyer, is the longest-serving current Supreme Court justice, and is often viewed as the most conservative member of the court — had been hospitalised with a “flu-like” infection and was being treated with antibiotics. He is expected to be released in a couple of days.

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