Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is brilliant, but she’s exceptionally gifted in the art of the long pause. Whenever Republican senators asked ridiculous, offensive questions during two grueling days at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, questions that might have made a lesser jurist explode, Jackson took her time. A long time, after Senator Ted Cruz brandished almost a dozen books, including Antiracist Baby, to claim that anti-white critical race theory is being taught at Georgetown Day School, where Jackson is on the board and her kids went to school.
“Senator, I do not believe that any child should be made to think that any child is racist or less than,” Jackson finally said after her pause. She went on. “Senator, I have not reviewed any of those books. They don’t come up in my work as a judge, which, respectfully, I am here to address.” (No word yet on whether Cruz conducted a ceremonial book burning with his critical race theory stash. Probably.)
Over two days of questioning, the nominee used the words “respect” or “respectfully” more times than I could count, despite the way she was disrespected by key senators—2024 presidential hopefuls like Texas’s Ted Cruz, Missouri’s Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, as well as Tennessee dim bulb Marsha Blackburn and South Carolina has-been Lindsey Graham. She has a remarkable ability to maintain a placid visage. Only occasionally did her lips purse slightly, as if she’d tasted something sour, or rotten. She faced so much that was sour and rotten, and her face only gave it away occasionally.
Too many GOP senators seemed hell-bent on turning her into a friend of child pornographers and pedophiles. It was not hard to suss out a theme the afternoon of the first day: What used to be a fringe theory espoused by QAnon cultists, linking top Democrats (with no evidence, obviously falsely) to the vile abomination of child sex trafficking, has now become a GOP mainstay. Polls show that half of all Trump supporters believe it; the 2024 wannabes see a key constituency.
Even the staid New York Times, which is frequently unwilling to accurately describe the derangement of today’s GOP, said they “appeared to be exploiting echoes of QAnon.” A prominent QAnon message board, the paper reported, posted some of Hawley’s ugliest claims about Jackson with the heading, “Biden’s SCOTUS nominee has got a soft spot for pedophiles.”
It’s really hard to pick the worst offender in these hearings—Cruz is normally the worst in any contest— but Hawley is in the running. He went into sickening, perverse detail about one offender’s crimes—18-year-old Wesley Hawkins, who shared child pornography with an undercover cop in a sting operation. (Cruz mentioned the case too, so maybe they’re tied for worst.) Discussing the charges against Hawkins, Hawley talked about an 8-year-old and a 12-year-old who committed “sexual acts” before a camera, and an 11-year-old shown on video “being raped by an adult male.” And on and on—videos featuring “collages,” “multiple victims,” even some “sadomasochistic images.” A lot of detail.
The Missouri senator then talked about his three young children and said, “I live in fear that they will be exposed to [child pornography], let alone exploited.” He then took something Jackson wrote that was not about the Hawkins case where she suggested that some child porn offenses were not as “heinous” or “egregious” as others, and asked her to respond.
She paused again.
“Thank you, Senator, for letting me address this.”
Then there was a seemingly endless back and forth—about a law Congress tried to pass mandating draconian sanctions against those consuming child porn (which Hawley favored), about how the late right-wing Justice Antonin Scalia struck down that law (ouch, Hawley), and much more.
One thing that wasn’t mentioned was that Hawkins was a gay teenager who happened to be Black, from a devout Christian family that had some serious struggles. During the trial, psychologists outlined a sympathetic analysis of where he’d gone wrong. “There is no indication that he is sexually interested in prepubescent children…. his interest in watching teens engaged in homosexual activity was a way for him to explore his curiosity about homosexual activity and connect with his emotional peers.”
And as Vox’s Ian Milhauser noted, according to a 2021 report by the US Sentencing Commission, roughly 60 percent of child pornography offenders (those who view, not create) got leniency from judges who had access to their life situations. Which makes Jackson mainstream, not the pedophile-loving freak Hawley tried to depict her as.
Yesterday, Graham grabbed his Diet Coke and stormed out of the hearing room after blasting Jackson over her representation of a Guantánamo detainee. “I hope they all die in jail if they’re going to go back and kill Americans,” he said, as he stalked out of the room. “That’s a better outcome than letting them go.”
Today, Graham came back a little calmer, although he focused on the way Democrats blocked the appointment of Black far-right Judge Janice Rogers Brown. “You had nothing to do with that,” he reassured Jackson. But then he joined Hawley in trashing her for her supposed weakness on child pornography.
In the creepy department, Graham might have done Hawley one better, by speaking directly to child pornography aficionados. “If you’re listening to my voice today and you’re looking at child pornography, I hope if you’re caught your sentenced is enhanced.” It has never crossed my mind to directly address child pornographers, but of course I’m not esteemed Senator Lindsey Graham. He ended his questioning shouting, again, but this time he did not storm out.
Democrats outdid themselves defending Jackson. I rarely have a kind word for West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, but when asked if Hawley’s attacks were changing his mind about the nominee, he told reporters, “You’re sure it was Hawley, right? Take that for what it’s worth.” Which, indeed, isn’t much.
“Your nomination turned out to be a testing ground for conspiracy theories…. the more bizarre the charges against you and your family, the more I understand the social media scoreboard lit up,” Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin said as he opened the second day’s questioning.
Some GOP senators slid into the lazy lane. When retiring North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis accused Jackson of wanting to set convicts free early in the pandemic, she had to tell him the line he was quoting from her decision was actually from a prisoner who asked to be freed, and that she denied his request. Tillis moved on—as did a lot of Republicans who got caught when the nominee recognized what they were reading, realized it misrepresented her actual position in the case, and said so.
Oh, and I mentioned dim bulb Blackburn. She had to abandon a couple of lines of questioning when Jackson showed she’d gotten the gist wrong. All’s fair. But her attempt to send Jackson to the fringe with a question about how to define a woman showed how desperately Republicans want to fight culture wars, how deft many Democrats are in deflecting them—and that, sadly, these wars will go on anyway.
As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump narrated, Blackburn began:
“Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?”
“Can I provide a definition?” Jackson replied, clearly bemused. “No. I can’t.”
“You can’t?” Blackburn replied.
“Not in this context,” Jackson said. “I’m not a biologist.”
“So you think the meaning of the word woman is so unclear and controversial that you can’t give me a definition?” Blackburn said, obviously framing Jackson’s response unfairly.
“Senator, in my work as a judge, what I do is I address disputes,” Jackson said. “If there’s a dispute about a definition, people make arguments and I look at the law and I decide. So I’m not—”
“Well, the fact that you can’t give me a straight answer”—here Blackburn offered a wry chuckle—“about something as fundamental as what a woman is underscores the dangers of the kind of progressive education that we are hearing about,” the senator said.
Apostate Republican Charlie Sykes called it all “performative assholery.” It is indeed performative: Jackson will get all 50 Democrats plus tiebreaker Vice President Kamala Harris. But Harris might not even be needed: Utah Senator Mitt Romney blasted his colleagues’ strategy, and Democrats normally expect Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski to support their SCOTUS nominees.
We’ll see. Jackson has been an exemplary nominee—calm and lucid—but nobody’s faced more bad-faith arguments. I doubt they can turn the tiny number of renegade Republicans, let alone any Democrats. But it’s painful to see such a qualified nominee go through this. We have degraded as a country over the last six years. May this ugly two days of wing nut questioning wake people up.