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Republicans try out midterm messages during Jackson hearings

▶ Watch Video: Supreme Court confirmation hearings wrap for nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson

It was always unlikely that there would be many Republicans voting to confirm Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, and they will only be able to delay — not to stop her — from becoming the first Black woman justice. But the GOP was able to use the Judiciary Committee hearings this week as a vehicle to give their midterm messages a dry run. 

It’s unclear at this point whether and how the war in Ukraine and related policy might influence November’s elections. But when it comes to domestic issues, several Republicans saw Jackson as a foil for themes they hope will not only motivate their base of supporters, but also help sway white suburban voters who turned away from the party during the Trump era. 

Republicans on the committee focused much of their questioning around crime, critical race theory, and gender identity, issues at the center of today’s culture war. It was a coordinated effort. The Republican National Committee, for example, tweeted a gif that crossed out KBJ (Jackson’s initials) and replaced it with CRT. 

Led by Sen. Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, GOP members shaped their opposition strategy around Jackson’s sentencing of child pornography offenders below the federal sentencing guidelines. Democrats and the White House argued such focus was intended to signal far right conspiracy theory groups like Q-Anon, which promotes false claims about Democrats and child trafficking. The lines of questioning amount to “testing ground for conspiracy theories and culture war theories,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said during the hearings.

“This is a president who is presiding over a historic crime wave. So, if they want to dismiss parents’ concerns about their children’s safety, and if they want to dismiss concerns about crime as a conspiracy theory? Take that argument to the polls,” Hawley told reporters outside the Senate chamber. “Crime is an important issue. It’s important to parents, it’s important to me as a parent. We are in the middle of a historic crime wave. I think it’s a topic on people’s minds.”

Hawley’s argument extended up the higher ranks of the GOP. Sen. Rick Scott, of Florida, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told reporters at the weekly party leadership press conference, that Jackson “seems to be very soft on sexual predators, people that have, you know, harmed our children.” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, told CBS News that Jackson is soft on crime, particularly evidenced on the child pornography [sentencing].” 

Jackson, who served as a district court judge in Washington, referenced her family members in law enforcement and her own experience as a mother who “took these cases home with me at night because they are so graphic in terms of the kinds of images that you are describing.” 

She argued that “In every case, I did my duty to hold the defendants accountable in light of the evidence and the information that was presented to me…The evidence in these cases are egregious. The evidence in these cases are among the worst that I have seen, and yet, as Congress directs, judges don’t just calculate the guidelines and stop. Judges have to take into account the personal circumstances of the defendant because that’s a requirement of Congress.”

Republicans also focused on gender identity, as several GOP state legislatures across the country have pushed transgender sports bans. Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn asked Jackson to provide a definition for the word “woman.” Jackson replied that she was not a biologist. Blackburn responded: “The fact that you can’t give me a straight answer about something as fundamental as what a woman is underscores the dangers of the kind of progressive education that we are hearing about.”

And as questions around teaching students about racism in the country’s history are causing rifts among school boards, parents and activists, Sen. Ted Cruz pressed Jackson on critical race theory, which acknowledges racial disparities that have persisted in U.S. history and offers a framework to understand how racism is reinforced in U.S. law and culture. The Texas senator referred to a 2015 speech in which she referenced the term, and brought various children’s books to the hearing. Jackson said the term “doesn’t come up in my work as a judge. It’s never something I’ve studied or relied on, and it wouldn’t be something that I would rely on if I were on the Supreme Court.” 

The days of wide bipartisan support for Supreme Court nominees may be long gone. But the historic nature of Jackson’s nomination as the first Black woman on the court may have been compelling in another era.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse told Jackson that she is “going to be a hero” to children and students across the country. Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of GOP leadership who is retiring this year, said he would be pleased to vote for the first Black woman on the court, but that what happens at the hearings should be the most important element of consideration. 

“My view from day one was that I thought it was absolutely fine for the president to make that commitment in the campaign that that’s what he wanted to do. And I had no problem with thinking that this is a time to narrow the field of candidates, to a person representing people who have not previously served on the court,” Blunt told CBS News. “But [they] would obviously have to be good lawyers and have the right temperament to be a good judge.”

Grassley told CBS News the nature of Jackson’s nomination is not a factor in his decision. “We look at the record of the person, we don’t care whether it’s man, woman, whether it’s Black, White, Hispanic, Native American, any of those things,” he said. “We are interested in people being constitutionalists, strict constructionists, not try to fill in holes that Congress might leave in laws.”

Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were two of three Republicans to vote for Jackson’s nomination to the district court and are considered potential crossovers for this nomination. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, withstood the wrath of conservatives when he voted to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, noting then that though they would not have been his choice, “elections have consequences,” and he deemed them to be good judges with good character. He voted to confirm Jackson to the district court, too, but his questioning this week made clear he doesn’t plan to support her again. When asked why elements of Jackson’s record concern him now when they didn’t in her previous confirmation, Graham told CBS News, “The position she has today could change the law.” 

Collins told reporters this week that “my mind is open,” but she wants to review the hearings before making a decision. 

Anyone considering crossing the aisle to vote for Jackson will do so without political cover from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who announced on the Senate floor Friday that he would oppose Jackson’s nomination. 



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