Ketanji Brown Jackson, Amy Coney Barrett, and the Ghosts of Confirmation Hearings Past

Senator Lindsey Graham asked Judge Jackson if she could ‘fairly judge a Catholic’ to highlight the hypocrisy of those who made an issue of the faith of previous Supreme Court nominees.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies on her nomination to become an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Tuesday.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies on her nomination to become an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Tuesday. (photo: Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

During the second day of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, asked the nominee about her religious beliefs

“What faith are you, by the way?” asked Senator Graham, and Judge Jackson replied that she was a nondenominational Protestant.

“Okay. Could you fairly judge a Catholic?” he asked. 

“Senator, I have a record of fairly judging everyone,” Jackson responded.

“I’m just asking this question because, how important is your faith to you?” he continued.

“Senator, personally, my faith is very important,” Jackson said. “But as you know, there’s no religious test in the Constitution under Article 6, and …”

“There will be none with me,” Graham said.

“And … it’s very important to set aside one’s personal views about things, in the role of a judge,” Jackson continued.

And when Graham revived his probing questions about the nominee’s faith, Judge Jackson said she wasn’t comfortable discussing that subject.

Without missing a beat, Graham recalled how Democrats had targeted the Catholic beliefs of Judge Amy Coney Barrett during her 2017 appellate court confirmation hearings. 

“How would you feel if a senator up here said of your faith, ‘the dogma lives loudly within you and that’s of concern?’” asked Graham, in a reference to Senator Diane Feinstein’s notorious attack on Barrett’s faith during the 2017 hearing. 

“You’re reluctant to talk about it because it’s uncomfortable,” Graham told Jackson. “Just imagine what would happen if people on late-night television called you a f’ing nut speaking in tongues because you practice the Catholic faith in a way they couldn’t relate to.” 

Graham’s tense exchange with Judge Jackson reminded his audience that the Democrats had tag teamed with progressive-oriented media and entertainment outlets to frame Barrett as an outlier who would undermine the rule of law and send women back to the Stone Age.

During Barrett’s 2017 Senate confirmation hearing, Feinstein told her, “The dogma lives loudly within you.”

Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pushed back against Feinstein, accusing the California senator of imposing an unconstitutional “religious test” on Barrett.

But media outlets amplified the Democrats’ line of attack.

The New York Time’s Laurie Goodstein spotlighted Barrett’s membership in “a small, tightly knit Christian group called People of Praise.”

Barrett’s involvement in the Christian group “never came up at the hearing, and might have led to even more intense questioning,” wrote Goodstein.

“Some of the group’s practices would surprise many faithful Catholics. … The group teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and should take authority over.”

In 2020, when President Trump nominated Barrett to the Supreme Court, Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presidential nominee, and Senate Democrats said her religious beliefs would not be addressed during the grueling hearings.

 But a slew of media stories revived the disturbing questions about Barrett’s religious faith

A 2020 Newsweek story reported that Barrett was “affiliated with a type of Christian religious group that served as inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale,” which was published in 1985 and later adapted into a popular television production. The Newsweek article misleadingly stated that People of Praise had provided the basis for The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel about a disturbing insular society that subjugates women. 

After Barrett’s allies challenged that characterization as inaccurate, Newsweek was forced to issue a clarification, noting that the book’s author “has never specifically mentioned the group as being the inspiration for her work.” 

Meanwhile, the Washington Post published takeaways from its own “investigation” into Barrett’s membership in People of Praise, leading with the headline “Amy Coney Barrett served as a ‘handmaid’ in Christian group People of Praise.”

“A 2010 People of Praise directory states that she held the title of ‘handmaid,’ a leadership position for women in the community, according to a directory excerpt obtained by The Washington Post.”

Again, the headline suggested that Barrett was a religious extremist. But later in the story, the reporter noted that the “title of handmaid was adopted by People of Praise in reference to the biblical description of Mary as ‘the handmaid of the Lord,’ according to the group.”

The repeated references to Barrett’s religion may have puzzled or even alarmed some readers. But the pattern of attacks showed that Democrats sought to use the confirmation battle to repeat election-year talking points on the need to defend Roe v. Wade. And in the process, they could also cast doubts on both Barrett’s qualifications and the legitimacy of the high court’s conservative majority, should she be confirmed.

Two years after Barrett’s confirmation battle, Sen. Graham’s aggressive examination of Judge Jackson’s religious beliefs was an attempt to call out such tactics to shame the Democrats and their allies in the media. Reporters picked up on his hit. 

“Judge Jackson is reluctant to go into detail about her faith,” noted the New York Times’ Charlie Savage during the paper’s live coverage of the hearing. “Senator Graham is using this to raise grievances about Democrats’ questioning of Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholicism. (In 2017, during her appeals court confirmation hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein said to now-Justice Barrett ‘the dogma lives loudly in you.’)”

Could Graham's remarks signal his intention to oppose the nominee? 

As the Times also noted, Senator Graham “has crossed party lines to support previous Supreme Court nominees chosen by Democrats, including Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and has been by far the most willing Republican on the committee to support President Biden’s judicial nominee.”

This time around, however, it seems unlikely that Graham will vote to confirm Jackson. 

His striking remarks and impatient tone during the Senate hearing suggest that he is still furious about the Democrats’ previous smear Barrett and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Likewise, as Graham made clear, he is angry about the more recent effort to derail the nomination of J. Michelle Childs, a district court nominee who was one of three Black jurists reported to be under serious consideration by President Biden. 

Graham charged that Childs, a fellow native of South Carolina, had been treated unfairly by left-wing groups. “If that’s the way the game’s going to be played,” he vowed, “then I’ll have a response, and I don’t expect it to … reward that way of playing the game.”

Biden’s defenders quickly challenged Graham’s claims. But it appears that the president can no longer depend on the senator’s compliance with the chamber’s fading tradition of bipartisanship, at least when it comes to nominations for the Supreme Court.