IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Culture wars, 2024 messages and a 'QAnon primary': How Ketanji Brown Jackson's hearing descended into a brawl

Democrats remain confident they'll have the votes to make her a Supreme Court justice. Here are key takeaways from a contentious week.
Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies on the third day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden's Supreme Court nominee, testifies Wednesday on the third day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Four days of contentious Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson highlighted Republican culture-war messaging and high aspirations for the new 6 to 3 conservative majority on the bench.

Democrats charged some GOP senators with pursuing deceitful portrayals of the historic nominee, who would be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, even suggesting that some were pandering to online radicals.

The Judiciary Committee is set to vote on the nomination April 4 and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is hoping to hold a vote in the full Senate later that week. Fifty votes are required to confirm her, and Democrats sound confident it'll be a bipartisan vote.

Here are some takeaways from the long and tense hearing.

Culture wars and GOP 'political messaging'

The hearings turned into a forum for culture wars and potential presidential aspirants test-driving their campaign messages — most notably Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Apart from Jackson's judicial philosophy and record, Republicans used their questioning time to press on a series of cultural hot buttons that are central to GOP political messaging, but largely irrelevant to the job she's vying for — including illegal migration and border policy, transgender athletes, progressive calls to add seats to the Supreme Court and critical race theory.

Jackson said multiple times that critical race theory, an academic framework that sees racism through a structural lens, is irrelevant to her work as a judge.

Senate Confirmation Hearing For Supreme Court Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., holds a visual aid Wednesday at the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.Julia Nikhinson / Bloomberg via Getty Images

At one point, Cotton asked her whether the U.S. should have more police officers, and whether the country would be better off if all Guantanamo Bay detainees were released.

Gregg Nunziata, a former chief counsel for nominations to Senate Judiciary Republicans, said there were “legitimate areas of inquiry” but critiqued some of the insinuations from GOP senators as “unfair” and “overwrought.”

He said he saw “plenty of political messaging,” in particular citing committee Republicans with higher aspirations. “Interesting to note how senators with presidential ambitions seemed to approach the hearings differently than their colleagues,” he said.

Hearing turns ugly

Republicans promised a measured and respectful hearing. Democrats say they didn’t deliver.

“Some of the attacks on this judge were unfair, unrelenting and beneath the dignity of the United States Senate,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Thursday, while allowing that the “majority” of the Republicans conducted themselves professionally.

The questioning opened on a cordial note but went off the rails when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., took the mic and hectored Jackson about how Democrats have treated past conservative judicial nominees. On Wednesday, Graham picked up where he left off Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Cruz instigated one of the most awkward and heated exchanges, raising his voice and demanding answers that Jackson said she had already given, interrupting Durbin as he noted his time was up.

At another point, when Cruz sought to jump in to be recognized, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chided him: “I know the junior senator from Texas likes to get on television but most of us have been here a long time, trying to follow the rules.”

Democrats were also frustrated by the extensive Republican interrogation of her record in cases of child exploitation, viewing the criticisms as substantively flimsy and crafted in bad faith to harm Jackson's image. President Joe Biden's advisers cited fact-checks (including from conservatives) that found Jackson's sentencing practices to be within the judicial mainstream. Durbin found himself operating as a fact-checker in between some questioning.

‘The QAnon primary’

The White House accused Hawley of pandering to the radical-right conspiracy group QAnon by instigating a misleading portrayal of Jackson's sentencing record in child pornography cases.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates labeled him "Josh Hawley (R-QAnon)" and accused him of pushing a "QAnon-signaling smear."

Asked Thursday by NBC News to respond, Hawley laughed and said, "Yeah, I’m also a member of the Illuminati."

He labeled the White House criticism "beyond absurd" and said he wants to see Biden "show some concern" about millions of images of children being exploited online.

Image: Senate Holds Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings For Ketanji Brown Jackson
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., holds up his mobile phone Wednesday as he questions Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Democrats chided the behavior of Hawley and other Republicans who pursued similar lines of attack.

"The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee should not be used to launder the smears that come from an online cult," Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said. "It's an absolutely terrifying online cult. The most ambitious presidential candidates want to win the QAnon primary."

Another conspiracy theory reared its head at the hearing: Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who was called by the Republicans to testify Thursday in opposition to Jackson, declined four times to say whether Biden was duly elected president in the 2020 election.

Democrats confident

Schatz, a member of the Democratic leadership, said Jackson remains in good shape to be confirmed.

"I feel very confident. I feel very good," he said. "I think she did extraordinarily well. I thought our members did well."

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee appeared firmly in Jackson's corner and expect that to be the case when she heads for a vote in the full Senate in the coming weeks.

"The Senate is on track to have Judge Jackson confirmed as Justice Jackson by the end of this work period," Schumer said Thursday. "Judge Jackson has erased any doubt that she is brilliant, she is beloved, and she belongs — unquestionably belongs­ — on the United States Supreme Court."

Some expect to win Republican votes, too.

"There's no reason she shouldn't be confirmed with significant bipartisan support," Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said.

Image: Law students from Southern University Law Center traveled from Baton Rouge, La., to support Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at a rally outside the U.S. Capitol on March 21, 2022.
Law students from the Southern University Law Center traveled from Baton Rouge, La., to support Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at a rally Monday outside the U.S. Capitol.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

GOP raises ambitions for 6-3 court

Using extraordinary tactics over the last six years, Republicans have built the most conservative Supreme Court in nearly a century, and this week offered a glimpse into their coming goals.

It's not just Roe v. Wade and abortion rights that conservatives hope the 6 to 3 Supreme Court (a balance that wouldn't change if Jackson is confirmed) will overturn this year.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, pressed Jackson on "un-enumerated rights" not explicitly listed in the Constitution, citing the right to same-sex marriage that the Supreme Court found in the 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges.

As liberals warn the justices to tread carefully on long-standing precedent, Cornyn said the court shouldn't feel timid about doing so. “Thank goodness the Supreme Court is willing to revisit its precedent or we’d still be living with Plessy v. Ferguson," he said, referring to the 1896 ruling that permitted racial segregation.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., took aim at the 1965 ruling Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Supreme Court found that contraceptives cannot be criminalized.

Democrats were alarmed.

"There seems to be an effort to roll back rights in a variety of areas — reproductive rights or voting rights, just as two examples," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the committee.