Ketanji Brown Jackson stressed that she will stay in her “lane” of the judicial system and not shape policy if confirmed to the US Supreme Court as she fended off Republican criticisms of her legal record.
“I am particularly mindful of not speaking to policy issues because I am so committed to staying in my lane of the system,” said Jackson, who was nominated by Joe Biden, president, to fill the seat that will be vacated when Stephen Breyer steps down at the end of the current term.
“I believe that judges are not policymakers,” she added.
Jackson sought to underscore her neutrality to the Senate judiciary committee on Tuesday as hearings to vet her nomination entered their second day. “My record demonstrates my impartiality,” she said.
Republican and Democratic members of the committee have largely praised Jackson’s background. But Republican senators sought to raise questions over her legal career, with Lindsey Graham, a senator for South Carolina, presenting the most confrontational queries around her past work linked to Guantánamo Bay, the US military base on Cuba that has hosted a prison for detainees in the aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks.
He criticised Jackson for her work in drafting court documents on behalf of her clients that opposed the periodic review of Guantánamo detainees and called for having them either tried or released.
“I’m just trying to understand what made you join this cause,” he said, to which Jackson responded that was not her own argument.
“When you are an attorney and you have clients who come to you, whether they pay or not, you represent their position before the court,” she said.
Graham’s questioning escalated further when Dick Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois and Senate judiciary committee chair who is presiding over Jackson’s hearing, joined the heated exchange.
“I hope they all die in jail if they’re going to go back to kill Americans,” Graham said in reference to Guantánamo prisoners, before picking up his bottle of soda and storming off.
Durbin responded by saying the committee should not associate Jackson’s work representing Guantánamo detainees when working in a federal public defender’s office in the early 2000s “as being inconsistent with our constitutional values”.
Jackson said she was assigned to four such cases after the Supreme Court in 2004 ruled Guantánamo detainees could file a legal challenge, emphasising that public defenders do not pick their clients. “As a federal public defender, you are standing up for the constitutional value of representation,” she said.
If confirmed, Jackson would be the first Supreme Court justice to have worked as a public defender — attorneys who represent criminal defendants, typically those who cannot afford their own representation.
Her supporters have hailed that experience as a vital perspective for the Supreme Court bench, but it has also exposed her to some attacks from Republicans over the individuals she represented.
Jackson also addressed accusations from some Republicans that she had given lenient sentences to defendants in child pornography cases. She said US judges were “adjusting their sentences in order to account for the changed circumstances” around the format of pornographic material in the internet age.
Responding to accusations suggesting her sentences had endangered children, she said: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Her exchange with Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, was among the most tense of the day. Hawley repeatedly quizzed Jackson over issuing sentences for child pornography defendants that fell below prosecutors’ recommendations and guidelines set by Congress, which are not mandatory.
“I am questioning your discretion, your judgment. That’s exactly what I’m doing,” Hawley said.
Jackson listed several factors that underpinned her decisions, including defendants’ circumstances and sentencing recommendations by an independent unit of the court. “Sentencing is a discretionary act of a judge. But it’s not a numbers game. It’s not,” she said.
Jackson also responded to claims she had been “soft on crime”, saying that as someone with family members in law enforcement, including a brother who worked as a police officer, “crime and the effects on the community and the need for law enforcement, those are not abstract concepts or political slogans to me”.
Senators on the judiciary committee will continue to question Jackson on Tuesday and Wednesday. After the hearing concludes, the committee will vote on whether to advance her nomination to the full Senate for a final vote.
Biden has watched a portion of the hearings, according to Chris Meagher, deputy White House press secretary. The president, a former chair of the Senate judiciary committee, “appreciated Judge Jackson’s commitment to stay in the lane of judges prescribed by the constitution, and her highlighting the importance of precedent,” Meagher said.
Biden “was also struck by how she swiftly dismantled conspiracy theories put forward in bad faith”, he added.