Ketanji Brown Jackson vows neutral stance on US top court

United States President Joe Biden’s nominee to the country’s highest court Ketanji Brown Jackson has defended her nearly decade-long record as a federal judge as one of independence and fairness.

“I decide cases from neutral posture,” Jackson told a US Senate committee on Monday, as she responded to Republican lawmakers’ accusations of political bias.

“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.”

In opening statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will be voting on whether to confirm Jackson’s nomination, Democrats defended her credentials and hailed her nomination to be the first Black female justice on the Supreme Court.

But Republicans signalled they would use Jackson’s nomination to brand Democrats as soft on crime, with Republican Senator Ted Cruz saying he would ask Jackson in the coming days about issues of free speech, religious liberty, gun rights, abortion and crime.

Cruz on Monday sought to tie Jackson to criminal justice reforms proposed in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson listens to opening statements during day one of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee [Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP]

“Part of the Democratic effort to abolish the police is nominating justices that consistently side with violent criminals, release violent criminals, refuse to enforce the law and that results in jeopardising innocent civilians. All those questions are fair game,” he said.

The US high court presently has a 6-3 conservative majority among its nine justices.

Jackson’s confirmation to replace retiring liberal Justice Stephen Breyer is not expected to change the court’s ideological balance, so that leaves Republicans looking to use her confirmation hearings to score political points in advance of November’s congressional elections.

Jackson will answer questions from the panel’s 11 Democratic and 11 Republican senators in day-long hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday. She would be the only the third Black justice, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas.

Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Jackson for her trail-blazing career and warned Republican attacks on her approach to criminal justice were baseless and unfair.

“It’s not easy being the first. You have to be the best, and in some ways the brightest. Your presence here today and your willingness to brave this process will give inspiration to millions of women who see themselves in you,” Durbin said.

Senator Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican on the committee, said Republicans would not turn Jackson’s hearings “into a spectacle” but would treat Jackson with respect while asking “tough questions about Judge Jackson’s judicial philosophy”.

Grassley said Republicans would probe Jackson’s two-year stint as a lawyer defending low-income criminal defendants, saying it was fair game to probe “criminal defence lawyers who disagree with our criminal laws and want to undermine laws that they have policy disagreements with”.

Jackson had served a federal public defender in Washington, DC from 2005 to 2007.

Senator Cory Booker, who is African American, applauded Jackson’s historic nomination. “Today, we should rejoice because President Biden nominated someone … who is extraordinarily talented, and who also happens to be a Black woman, something we’ve never seen before,” Booker said.

Jackson needs 51 votes to be confirmed – and with Democrats in narrow control of the 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris acts as the tie-breaker, she is expected to be approved.

“It seems like her nomination is going to go through,” said James Thurber, a professor of government at American University in Washington, DC. But “there will be tough questions” from Republicans in her confirmation hearings, he said.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson greets Senator Dick Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the committee.
Jackson needs 51 votes in the US Senate to have her nomination confirmed [Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo]

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of three Republicans who had voted to confirm Jackson to her current position last year, suggested that his vote now was uncertain.

Graham argued that, while Republican nominees have been asked tough questions by Democrats in prior confirmation hearings, Republicans would be called racists if they challenged Jackson’s judicial philosophy.

“It’s about ‘we’re all racists if we ask hard questions’. That’s not gonna fly with us. We’re used to it by now,” Graham said.

Jackson noted that her parents grew up in the era of racial segregation in the US South.

“My parents taught me that, unlike the many barriers that they had had to face growing up, my path was clearer, such that if I worked hard and believed in myself, in America I could do anything or be anything I wanted to be,” she said.

The American Bar Association, which evaluates US judicial nominees, on Friday gave Jackson its highest rating, as unanimously “well qualified”.

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