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Ketanji Brown Jackson: Key highlights from Day 3 of her Supreme Court hearings

Democrats assail "conspiracy theories," Lindsey Graham gets fired up, and "Law And Order" (the television variety, not the courtroom kind) makes an appearance.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for her nomination to the Supreme Court on March 23, 2022.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for her nomination to the Supreme Court on March 23, 2022.Julia Nikhinson / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Senate wrapped up the final round of public questioning of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on Wednesday evening, as the Supreme Court nominee faced familiar critiques from Republicans on her record and politically charged issues.

"Judge Jackson, you are extraordinary. Your story is a great American story," Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said as he concluded the day's proceedings. "You are exceptionally qualified for this position."

Durbin praised Republicans who were respectful of her and assailed some unnamed "obvious, glaring exceptions" for their "offensive treatment" of the historic pick to be the court's first Black female justice.

The committee is now set to hear from witnesses Thursday who will speak about Jackson's nomination. Durbin said the panel would meet to consider her nomination on March 28, though a committee vote is likely to be delayed until April 4.

Here are some key takeaways from the third day.

Original intent and 'modern day'

Under questioning about how to reconcile constitutional provisions written for a world that has dramatically changed, Jackson discussed her philosophy for balancing that.

“It’s a process of understanding what the core foundational principles are in the Constitution, as captured by the text, as originally intended, and then applying those principles to modern day," she said under questioning about how the First Amendment's protections for a free press apply in a world of smartphones.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said that judicial temperament and integrity are important but that "judicial philosophy" is overrated. He said it's often a smokescreen for a policy-driven approach to judging that powerful special interests want to see, citing “originalism” as an example.

Durbin's 'editorializing'

The day opened with Senate Judiciary chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., rebutting claims by Republican senators, particularly Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., from the previous day — and irking some of his colleagues in the process.

“For many senators, yesterday was an opportunity to showcase talking points for the November election,” he said. “Yesterday, your nomination turned out to be a testing ground for conspiracy theories and culture war theories. The more bizarre the charges against you and your family, the more I understand the social media scoreboard lit up yesterday. I’m sorry we have to go through this.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., chimed in to take issue with his "editorializing" — to which Durbin replied: “It’s called chairman’s time. It is a tradition in this committee.” He said his Republican predecessors have done the same.

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., the only millennial on the committee, chimed in to tell his older colleagues to cut it out. “I don’t think we set an appropriate time by bickering about time and process at the outset of our proceedings,” he said.

Graham's aggressive questioning

The mood in the room was calmer and more jovial than Tuesday — until Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., took the mic. The exchange quickly grew tense as Graham took on a hectoring tone, grilling her about Democrats' treatment of a lower court nominee from two decades ago and of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

As he grilled her on illegal immigration, child pornography sentencing and past judicial battles, Graham interrupted Jackson multiple times, frustrating Democrats.

"Senator, she’s had nothing to do with the Kavanaugh hearings," Durbin responded.

"No, but I’m asking her about how she may feel about what y’all did," Graham said.

"Senator, your time has expired," Durbin replied.

Outside the room, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Graham's behavior was "beyond the pale" and that he was "badgering" the nominee. He called it "a sad day for the U.S. Senate."

Politically-charged critiques

The Republican questioning included familiar themes of crime, immigration and "critical race theory."

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, repeatedly grilled Jackson on why she didn’t give a particular defendant a higher sentence, describing the transgressions in graphic terms. When he interrupted her responses, Durbin grew impatient: “I’ll just say to the judge: There’s no point in answering, he’s just going to interrupt you.”

That set Cruz off. “I appreciate the chairman trying to filibuster, and if you don’t like the witness’s answer you’re welcome to provide your own,” he said. The Texas Republican and Illinois Democrat went back and forth until Durbin, declaring Cruz’s time up, proceeded to the next senator.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., pressed on the same issue.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., grilled Jackson about her public defender work representing Guantanamo Bay detainees and asked if she believes the U.S. would be better off if they were all released.

The final questioner, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., returned for one last stab at the issue of critical race theory.

"Critical race theory — any academic theory — is not considered in my sentencing," Jackson said. "It never comes up in sentencing."

Democrats confident

During his questioning, Leahy, who has participated in 20 Supreme Court confirmation battles over nearly half a century serving in the Senate, predicted the outcome of the Jackson hearings.

"You will become a member of the U.S. Supreme Court," he told her.

A White House official said they're pleased with her performance, adding that Jackson did "incredibly well for over 20 hours and withstood many antics." The official said they still believe "we're on track for a timely confirmation."

"I watch 'Law and Order'"

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., did his best to make a U.S. senator on the Judiciary Committee appear relatable to ordinary Americans.

“I’m not an attorney. I watch 'Law and Order' from time to time," he told Jackson during his questioning early in the day.