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In all likelihood, nothing Republicans or their allies in the right-wing media say about Ketanji Brown Jackson will keep her from becoming the first Black woman to serve on the nation’s high court. Despite the Democrats’ difficulty getting other key agenda items through, they are almost certain to stick together to confirm Joe Biden’s Supreme Court pick — and may even do so with a few GOP votes. But that hasn’t stopped Republicans from beginning a bad faith campaign against the nominee: They may not ultimately prevent her confirmation, but they could work to undermine her legitimacy — and to use her proceedings as a proxy battle against Biden and the Democrats ahead of this year’s midterms.
Many in the GOP have made a point to emphasize the qualifications of the Harvard-educated, ten-year veteran of the bench. “She’s a very smart, very accomplished attorney,” Senator Josh Hawley told the Washington Post. “I imagine she’ll be able to defend her litigation.” But the attacks some in the party have previewed in recent days have nevertheless amounted to little more than political smears: In the National Review, Kevin D. Williamson wrote that Jackson should be disqualified because she “does not believe in the rule of law,” a knavish charge for which he provided no support whatsoever. In a floor speech Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell set the upcoming Jackson confirmation hearings against the backdrop of “skyrocketing murders and carjackings,” insinuating that the judge was “soft-on-crime” because of her background as a public defender. “The same radicals who want to turn Democrats into the party of court-packing also badly wanted Judge Jackson for this vacancy,” McConnell said. “It’s a matter of record that this nominee was the anointed favorite of these fringe groups.”
“I intend to explore why groups that are waging political war against the Court as an institution decided Judge Jackson was their special favorite,” McConnell added.
Those attacks are nowhere close to the racism Tucker Carlson hit Jackson with on his program this week, when he called on her to prove her credentials by releasing her LSAT scores — a demand that recalled Donald Trump’s crusade, during the birther campaign that helped launch his political rise, to get then-President Barack Obama to release his college transcripts. Some of these broadsides are also nothing new; Republicans have long portrayed Democrat-appointed judges as “activists,” while hailing conservative nominees as inherently neutral interpreters of the law (even when they venture into explicit partisan territory, as Trump-nominee Brett Kavanaugh did in his acrimonious 2018 proceedings). McConnell himself has long been a principal architect of this kind of political gamesmanship when it comes to the courts, rewriting the rules as he goes along in his legacy project of swinging the judiciary to the right.
A rigorous inquiry into Jackson’s record and legal philosophy is obviously fair game, even if Amy Coney Barrett was able to skate past such careful vetting as McConnell rushed her onto the bench in the days before the 2020 election. But the implication that Jackson is not just a liberal in the vein of Stephen Breyer, the justice she’ll replace, but some kind of “radical” who opposes the rule of law, is something else entirely, and recalls the right-wing refrains against Obama who, regardless of his actual record, was consistently cast as a leftist seeking to undermine the very American principles he was elected to uphold. Many of these attacks on Jackson are absurd on their face. But what’s especially galling about these bad faith critics is that they do not even appear to feel obliged to provide even cursory proof of their claims, as though her supposed radicalism was a given. “That’s nothing but a racist deflection,” Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said of McConnell’s Thursday floor speech. “It has nothing to do with what her record has demonstrated. It has nothing to do with whether she will be an appropriate and brilliant sitting jurist. It has nothing to do with the job that she is expected to do.”
Three GOP senators — Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski — already cast votes for Jackson last summer, when she was confirmed to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. But that doesn’t mean they’ll do so again — Graham in a statement after her nomination linked her to the “radical left” — and Republicans could still go through the exercise of opposing her, even if it doesn’t end up jeopardizing her path to confirmation. Not only may there be some appetite among Republicans to exact revenge for the unfair treatment to which they claim Democrats visited on their nominees — they seem to want to use Jackson, and other judicial nominees, as an avatar for the issues they want to attack Democrats on in the 2022 and 2024 elections. Once more, Republicans are unlikely to be able to derail Jackson as they did Obama-nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, especially as Jackson’s confirmation would not alter the political makeup of the court. And, Democrats appear united; Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema have confirmed Biden’s court nominees.
But, it seems no accident that Republican attacks on Jackson so far have invoked crime and the culture wars; they have spent the early-going of their quest to regain control of Capitol Hill knighting themselves the defenders of law and order and the values of everyday Americans. But by attacking her now as a puppet of the far left, they could hope to further rally their base in November against the Democrats they claim are pulling the strings.
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