Ketanji Brown Jackson gave a passionate defense of her sentencing of child sexual abuse imagery offenders as a rebuttal to Republican attacks that she has been unduly lenient in such cases, as her confirmation hearings for a seat on the US supreme court entered a critical second day.
In the course of some harsh questioning, Jackson strongly rejected claims that were first made last week by Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri.
Hawley has spent several days advancing the theory that the Biden nominee, in her eight years as a federal district court judge, handed down sentences that were far more lenient than federal guidelines suggested or prosecutors requested.
The accusations have been debunked as misleading and false. On Tuesday, Jackson gave a personal response to the claims.
“As a mother and a judge who has had to deal with these cases, nothing could be further from the truth,” Jackson said under questioning from Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic committee chair.
She said child abuse cases were among the most difficult she dealt with as a judge, and described child sexual abuse imagery as a “sickening and egregious crime”.
Hawley grilled Jackson on Tuesday over a 2013 case, United States v Hawkins, in which she sentenced an 18-year-old male to three months in prison when the federal guidelines had recommended up to 10 years and prosecutors asked for two years. The senator said the defendant had been caught with a large collection of videos and pictures of children as young as eight committing sex acts.
In tense exchanges, Hawley bluntly admitted that he was questioning Jackson’s judgment on sex crimes cases. He quizzed the nominee about why she had told the offender that there was no reason to think he was a pedophile and had gone on to apologize to him and his family for the “collateral consequences of his conviction of him”.
“Judge, is he the victim here, or are his victims the victims?” Hawley said.
Jackson replied that she had considered the unusual case, given that the defendant had only recently graduated from high school. “I sentenced this 18-year-old to three months in federal prison under circumstances presented in this case,” she said.
Hawley’s attack on sex crimes sentencing was the sharpest Republican offensive against Jackson, who if confirmed would become the first African American woman to sit on the supreme court.
On the second day of hearings – traditionally the toughest day which Durbin said was known as “trial by ordeal” – each committee member was given 30 minutes to engage with Jackson. On Wednesday, they will get 20 minutes for follow-up questions. The final decision on confirmation will be made in a vote of the full Senate that is likely to be held by the first week in April.
After a relatively amicable opening day, Jackson was facing up to 12 hours on Tuesday of possibly grueling interrogation from the 22-member committee, half of which is Republican.
In one of the more surreal moments, Ted Cruz from Texas held up an oversized reprint of a children’s book by the anti-racist writer Ibram X Kendi that he used to insinuate that Jackson was in favor of “critical race theory” being taught in elementary schools. “Do you agree that it is being taught in schools that babies are racist?” Cruz insisted.
“I don’t believe that any child should be made to feel as though they are racist or not valued or victims, oppressors. I don’t believe in any of that,” Jackson replied.
Jackson was also forced to defend herself against accusations that she was soft in her legal approach towards terrorist suspects held at Guantánamo. She spent two years as a federal public defender and in that role she represented some of the detainees in their bid for review of their cases.
The nominee said that American justice required all defendants to be represented and treated fairly. “That’s what makes our system the best in the world, that’s what makes us exemplars,.”
Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, tried to challenge Jackson by association, pointing to progressive groups who had backed her nomination. He especially referred to groups that wanted to dilute conservative dominance of the supreme court by expanding the number of its justices.
“Every group that wants to pack the court, that believes this court is a bunch of rightwing nuts that is going to destroy America, that considers the constitution trash – all wanted you picked… That is problematic for me,” Graham said.
The nominee was asked by the committee to lay out her views on abortion. The subject is currently before the supreme court which is expected to dismantle the fundamental right to a termination enshrined in its own 1973 ruling Roe v Wade.
Jackson said that she agreed with two of Trump’s appointees to the court, Brett Kavanaugh and Barrett, when they said in their respective confirmation hearings that Roe was settled law. She added that she believed that stare decisis – the legal principle of sticking with the court’s past precedent – was “very important”.
John Cornyn, Republican senator from Texas, tried to puncture the stare decisis argument that Roe should be respected as established precedent by invoking Dred Scott, the 1857 supreme court ruling that stripped people of African descent of US citizenship, and Plessy v Ferguson, the 1896 ruling that approved racial segregation. “Thank goodness the supreme court has been willing to revisit its precedent, otherwise we’d still be living with Plessy and Dred Scott,” he said.
Cornyn quizzed Jackson on her views about same-sex marriage and whether it was legitimate for the supreme court to have declared gay marriage legal in 2015. She said the court had decided that marriage equality was a right under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment .
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism