Senators spar over first Black woman Ketanji Brown Jackson for US Supreme Court
Credits: SAUL LOEB / AFP

Senators spar over first Black woman Ketanji Brown Jackson for US Supreme Court

Senators launched marathon hearings Monday on Ketanji Brown Jackson's bid to be the first Black woman on America's Supreme Court, with opposing sides sparring on her sentencing record as Republicans sought to frame her as soft on crime.

President Joe Biden's pick to join the nation's highest court was formally introduced at the start of televised hearings that will go on to include two days of questioning and a final day of testimony from outside witnesses.

Biden released a statement on social media just before Jackson's arrival at the US Capitol complex, describing her as "a brilliant legal mind with the utmost character and integrity."

A 51-year-old former federal public defender with almost a decade of experience as a judge on lower courts, Jackson previously served as a law clerk to Stephen Breyer, the retiring liberal justice she is being nominated to replace.

She is the first Black woman tapped for a seat on the court and would also be the only nominee of a Democratic president to be confirmed since Elena Kagan in 2010.

But while the historic significance is enormous, the prospects for major drama are low, with a green light from the Senate all but assured and the 6-3 conservative balance of the court not in play.

As the final word on all civil and criminal legal disputes, as well as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution, the Supreme Court seeks to ensure the American people equal justice under the law.

- No 'character assassination' -

It is a check on the power wielded by the other branches of government and the arbiter of disputes covering all aspects of American life, from religious liberty and voting rights to gun ownership, abortion access and gay marriage.

Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar said in her address supporting the nomination that the court "decides cases with life-changing consequences."

The Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting Monday through Thursday to consider Jackson's nomination, which is being conducted by a 50-50 chamber controlled by Democrats, meaning there is no room for missteps.

No red flags have been raised about Jackson's record that would imperil her prospects, and Republicans have pledged to avoid the kind of "character assassination" they argue Democrats staged before the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

But conservatives have been signaling that they intend to go after her record as a public defender and raise rulings they say were too lenient in a bid to frame Biden -- via his nominee -- as soft on crime ahead of November's midterm elections.

Staunch right-winger Josh Hawley has already suggested that Jackson has a pattern of "letting child porn offenders off the hook" and added Monday that he intended to have a "very candid" conversation with her about her sentencing history.

- 'Inspiration to millions' -

From the beginning, both sides were on the defensive as, with the committee's Democratic chairman Dick Durbin seeking to discredit the claim that Jackson isn't tough enough and praising her as a "champion for the rule of law."

"Your presence here today to brave this process will give inspiration to millions of Americans who see themselves in you," he told Jackson, rejecting the suggestion that she would be a "rubber stamp" for Biden.

Republicans, including former committee chairmen Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham, defended their side against potential accusations that opposition to Jackson is racist or sexist.

"We're all racist if we ask hard questions? It's not going to fly with us," Graham said.

In a marked contrast to the solemn atmosphere inside the hearing, supporters of Jackson staged a jubilant rally outside the nearby Supreme Court, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the judge's image and waving placards.

Gospel choirs sang and dancers danced as activists chanted Jackson's name at the demonstration staged by the National Women's Law Center Action Fund, She Will Rise and the Black Women's Roundtable.

All 22 members of the Judiciary Committee get to speak for about 10 minutes each on Jackson's nomination on Monday, as will Jackson herself.

Senators will question the nominee on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday's hearing includes outside witnesses. Democratic leaders plan a final Senate vote by early April.

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