What We Learned in Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing
The rhetoric at Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearing demonstrates what’s at stake regarding her appointment and the broader debates about our constitutional democracy.
Senate votes to confirm.
Statement by the Center’s Nancy Northup
On April 7, 2022, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Read the Center’s statement about her historic confirmation. (Photo: ©Alex Brandon/AP Photo)
Last week, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary (“the Committee”) held a four-day hearing on the historic nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. The Committee will be voting to advance Judge Jackson’s nomination on Monday, April 4, and her final confirmation vote is expected later in the week.
Judge Jackson has had a stellar career in law—in practice and on the federal bench for nearly a decade as both a trial and appellate judge. Her deep commitment to public service, demonstrated in her work as a federal public defender and on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, underscored her testimony throughout the hearing. In her opening remarks, Judge Jackson spoke to how she has dedicated her career “to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building – ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ – are a reality and not just an ideal.”
Judge Jackson will make history as the first Black woman justice on the Supreme Court, an achievement Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Alex Padilla (D-CA) centered in their remarks. Sen. Booker spoke of his joy in this historic moment, celebrating what it meant for Judge Jackson to be sitting before the Committee, and naming the impact that her confirmation will have on the generations of people watching. Of the 115 people who have served on the Supreme Court, only three of them have been people of color, only five have been women, and there has only been one woman of color.
But not all members of the Committee gave Judge Jackson’s outstanding record, demonstrated integrity, and diverse professional experiences the attention or the respect that they deserved in this hearing. Instead, Judge Jackson was repeatedly asked hostile and inappropriate questions, and faced disrespectful, racist, and sexist attacks in an effort to grossly distort her record and question her character.
Several senators further used Judge Jackson’s hearing as a platform to air their desire for the Supreme Court to undo broad constitutional protections for fundamental liberty and equality rights. While Senate confirmation hearings often involve a number of questions about a nominee’s view of the role of the judiciary and Supreme Court precedent, including Roe v. Wade, these senators went further, using Judge Jackson’s hearing as a platform to target not only abortion rights but other Fourteenth Amendment liberty and equality interests for which Roe serves as an essential foundation.
Read more about Judge Jackson.
The Historic Nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court
What you need to know and why it matters to abortion rights.
- Senator Blackburn (R-TN) called out as “judicial activism” the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Roe v. Wade, which recognized that the Constitution’s liberty guarantee encompasses the fundamental right to abortion. Sen. Blackburn followed up with a question seeking a commitment from Judge Jackson to “respect the Court’s decision” in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization if it overturns Roe. (The Court is anticipated to rule on this case, brought by the Center and challenging Mississippi’s unconstitutional 15-week abortion ban, before the end of June. The Supreme Court will have to decide whether to uphold the ban and overturn 50 years of precedent reaffirming Roe.) Earlier in the week, Sen. Blackburn also criticized the Supreme Court’s 1965 decision Griswold v. Connecticut—which recognized a constitutional right to access contraception—and called the decision “constitutionally unsound.”
- Similarly, Senator Cornyn (R-TX) called the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision Obergefell v. Hodges—which reiterated that marriage is a fundamental right and held that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated the Fourteenth Amendment—“an act of judicial policymaking” in which the Court “substitute[d] its views for that of the elected representatives of the people.”
- Senator Kennedy (R-LA) criticized courts’ recognition of rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, suggesting that some rights are less legitimate than others and that those rights interfere with states’ “rights” to disregard certain liberty and equality interests.
Undermining or overturning Roe v. Wade would be devastating for abortion rights. But as these senators made plain, the consequences of such a decision would be significantly farther, reaching into all aspects of our private lives. Undermining Roe would also negatively impact people seeking to exercise a wide range of rights, including the rights to marry, to use contraception, to procreate, and to make private medical and other personal decisions.
It is critical for debates about the future of constitutional jurisprudence to address abortion rights in context, instead of as a stand-alone issue on which judicial nominations turn. (For more analysis of the relationship between abortion rights and other liberty interests, read the Center’s report, Beyond Abortion: Roe and Other Rights.)
The rhetoric at Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearing demonstrates not only what is at stake when it comes to her appointment, but also in the broader debates about our constitutional democracy. Congress plays a central role in protecting or undermining the people’s liberty and equality interests. This role is not limited to “advise and consent” on judicial nominations – it also extends to passing national legislation.
Judge Jackson’s nomination comes at a perilous time for the Supreme Court’s adherence to critical constitutional precedent and protections. The Court has started unraveling rights that people have relied on for decades—including voting rights, reproductive rights, and racial equality—rights that are essential for a healthy democracy. The hearing on Judge Jackson’s confirmation also provided an opportunity for Congress to voice its interest in defining, protecting, or unraveling critical rights—and we need to listen.