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Ketanji Brown Jackson has the qualifications for the Supreme Court. Will that be enough?

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Roar writer Matteo Cardarelli on the Senate scrutiny of US Supreme Court Nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson.

With Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearings in full swing, political commentators on both sides of the aisle have already scrutinized the fifty-one year old’s qualifications for the bench. Jackson’s character and professionalism are the focus of the public eye as she seeks to become the first African-American female justice to sit on the Supreme Court. The hearings are likely to reveal much about Jackson, as the pressure of the cameras and a Republican inquisitorial squad so often does. However, nominating Jackson over a host of other names, President Biden is banking on her profound wealth of experience in the legal system. Jackson will have to draw on this and more if she is to make it through the treacherous process that lies ahead. 

Jackson’s background is key to understanding the kind of justice she would be. As a Harvard-educated law school graduate, she clerked for outgoing Justice Stephen Breyer. Jackson displayed strong affection for her predecessor in a speech at the White House following her nomination. She said that Breyer “exemplified every day in every way that a Supreme Court Justice can perform at the highest level of skill and integrity” and is a paradigm of “civility, grace, pragmatism, and generosity of spirit“. Nice words for a former boss whose temperate approach she largely emulates. Familial connections to law enforcement through her brother and uncles, as well as the other side of the justice system through an uncle previously serving a life sentence for drug trafficking (since commuted by former President Obama), are equally significant influences. Jackson noted “law enforcement also runs in my family“, during her official White House nomination ceremony. 

Much has been made of Jackson’s judicial record; the first few days of hearings on Capitol Hill have been fraught with the finger-pointing and pitchfork-waving customary of most confirmation hearings. Senators Josh Hawley (Republican-Missouri) and Tom Cotton (Republican-Arkansas) launched particularly scalding tirades on Jackson’s work in child pornography cases. 

Yet, as Jackson responded, a few cherry-picked cases do not make a career (even assuming that these cases were badly decided, which is another issue altogether). The majority of her work came during the eight years spent on the District Court for DC, which revealed a preference for solid, well-crafted decisions. Jackson has refused to commit to several principles of the core liberal judicial philosophy; notably, she has refused to recognize the ‘super-precedent’, which enshrines the sanctity of cases like Roe v Wade. Yet she has openly clashed with the Trump administration over a slew of policies, from immigration to Mr. Trump’s invocation of executive privilege in the 2019 impeachment hearings. Regarding Mr. Trump, Jackson wrote, “Presidents are not kings” and, “they [Presidents] do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control“. Such blunt opposition to Trumpian politics is a catalyst for propelling a judge into the limelight. It is also likely to earn her the ire of Trump’s disciples in the Senate. 

Is Jackson the right pick for Biden? Her career in the legal system is extensive and polished. She certainly appeals to grassroots liberal organizations that have been begging for a stronger hand when it comes to representation on the Court. Demand Justice, a group that strongly advocates for judicial reform, endorsed the nomination, describing Jackson as an “extraordinarily qualified nominee” who comes with an “unparalleled breadth and depth of experience“. NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) President, Derrick Johnson, was equally supportive, and said in a statement, “President Biden has met this moment with an extraordinarily qualified nominee, who has stellar credentials and an impeccable background”.

While her record is not exactly that of a liberal firebrand, Jackson’s experience and background have made her a smash success with Democrats so far. A Gallup poll found that 88% of Democrats approve of Jackson’s nomination, more than any other liberal Supreme Court nominee since the polls started. It seems apparent that Jackson would be a moderately liberal justice, in a similar way to Justice Breyer; she is temperate, patient and organized, and the hearings have reinforced this impression. 

Yet Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed to her confirmation, with over half saying that they would outright oppose it. Fuelled by the typical obtuseness of partisan politics, a bipartisan confirmation seems a mirage. It will probably take a tie-breaking vote by Vice-President Kamala Harris to confirm Jackson, as Senators follow the party line in a 50-50 split. That a candidate who lacks any skeletons in the closet should require the party backbenchers to tow the line for confirmation shows just how far hard work can get you in today’s political game – not very. The red or blue of party affiliation matters as much as the black and white on a CV. 

As Biden fulfils his campaign promise to nominate America’s first black woman to the Supreme Court, the GOP (Republican Party) will inevitably close ranks. But this time, Republicans’ usual foot-dragging may be mixed in with something even more pernicious. Already, claims of Jackson’s nomination as a sort of racial litmus test have been circulated in conservative circles. Despite Jackson’s eminently clear qualifications, her nomination process may be an uphill battle. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hangs in the wings, having already promised to oppose her nomination. Lindsey Graham, who voted to confirm Jackson to the Circuit Court last June, has reverted to his usual indignant bitterness in the first days of the hearings. As talk of ‘racist babies’ and allegations of compassion towards child pornographers are floated in the halls of the Capitol building, Jackson’s greatest qualification for the job would be navigating an increasingly dysfunctional, erratic and incendiary Senate.

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