(WASHINGTON) — Supreme Court confirmation battles are typically remembered for a few searing or pithy exchanges — or, just as likely, not at all.
The memories of and lessons drawn from Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s successful nomination, though, are likely to be as divided as the political climate that produced them. That means partisan takeaways that confirm particular worldviews of 2022 — and, just maybe, a different path that points toward a less overheated political climate.
Jackson’s nomination elicited soaring pride from many Democrats, an emotional reaction driven by her unique life story, deep qualifications, and, with Thursday’s 53-47 Senate vote, her place in history. The Supreme Court will now have its first Black woman justice, and Jackson will serve on the first-ever high court where white men constitute a minority of the membership.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., quoted a famous Maya Angelou poem in celebrating Jackson’s committee vote on Monday: “You may try to write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies. You may trod me down in the very dirt. But still, like dust, I rise.”
It’s fair to say that most Senate Republicans saw the moment differently. For them, Jackson’s nomination was a chance to prosecute Democratic policies and settle scores from past nomination fights — with sometimes strange detours into matters including sentencing for child porn offenses, defining what a woman is and determining whether babies are racist.
Speaking on the Senate floor this week, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., drew an explosive historical through-line connecting the late Justice Robert Jackson to the woman who will now be the newest Justice Jackson, referencing her work as a federal public defender on behalf of suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay.
“The last Judge Jackson left the Supreme Court to go to Nuremberg and prosecute the case against the Nazis. This Judge Jackson might have gone there to defend them,” Cotton said.
President Joe Biden’s decision to name a Black woman to the court meant that it was perhaps inevitable that the confirmation battle would showcase racial tensions as well as political opportunism.
With Democrats controlling 50 Senate votes as well as the vice-presidential tiebreaker, there was little doubt from the start that Jackson would be confirmed. But three Republican senators wound up breaking with their party and voting for her — not a huge number, yet a significant marker for who they are and where they want to go from here.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, break fairly regularly with their party on judicial appointments. Both support abortion rights and had voted to confirm Jackson less than a year ago to her most recent federal judgeship, and both said they felt that Jackson’s qualifications merited her confirmation.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined them in voting for Jackson last year for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He made clear in his questioning last month, though, that she would be held to account, in part, for how Democrats handled previous Supreme Court confirmations. In explaining his “no” vote now, he blamed what he called her “judicial activism” as well as sentencing in child pornography cases that were part of the public record before last year.
The biggest surprise came from Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who did the opposite of Graham in voting for Jackson on Thursday after voting against her last year. Romney said he dug into her record and met with her to help establish in his mind that she is “within the mainstream” and therefore worthy of confirmation.
Like Collins and Murkowski, Romney expressed concern about what it means to have Supreme Court justices confirmed strictly along party lines.
Romney offered a characteristically understated indictment of his colleagues in explaining his vote to reporters: “Perhaps we are going to have to reconsider the process that we are going to pursue in the future.”
Romney was the most recent Republican nominee for president before former President Donald Trump, though that description significantly overstates his sway in the modern GOP. It’s also worth noting that Trump’s three Supreme Court nominees got a total of five Democratic votes, picking up four for Justice Neil Gorsuch, one for Justice Brett Kavanaugh and then zero for Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Modern court confirmation battles combine some of the worst grievances and grudges accumulated over decades with some of the worst new tactics of demonization. Another lasting image of Jackson’s confirmation might be the shot of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, checking his Twitter mentions moments after an aggressive round of questions directed at his former Harvard Law School classmate.
In another slice of choose-your-own-reality politics, Jackson’s ascension to the high court may change nothing in terms of the Supreme Court’s ideology, given that she is replacing Justice Stephen Breyer, whom she once clerked for and remains close with. At the same time, it may change everything when it comes to representation on the court.
Similarly, the process that got her to the Supreme Court speaks volumes about the state of modern politics without changing very much at all. As with so much in 2022, you can watch the same events play out and come away with starkly divergent views of why it matters.
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