Ketanji Brown Jackson Hearings: Senators Signal Abortion, Religious Liberty Concerns

While her initial remarks were brief, Jackson is expected to begin answering questions from lawmakers in-depth on Tuesday.

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson departs with her husband Dr. Patrick Jackson, left, after the first day of the Senate Judiciary confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill March 21, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson departs with her husband Dr. Patrick Jackson, left, after the first day of the Senate Judiciary confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill March 21, 2022 in Washington, DC. (photo: Pool / Getty)

WASHINGTON — Twenty-two senators delivered opening statements on the first day of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, where they signaled interest in the judge’s legal view on topics including abortion and religious liberty. 

March 21 marked the first of four days of hearings led by the Senate Judiciary Committee for Jackson, the federal judge nominated by President Joe Biden to replace retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Jackson said that she hoped to carry on the spirit of Breyer, whom she clerked for in 1999 and 2000, in her opening statement on Monday. While her initial remarks were brief, Jackson is expected to begin answering questions from lawmakers in-depth on Tuesday.

Senators aligned with their respective parties in their statements, which indicated the direction of their upcoming questions. Democrats focused on Jackson’s legal experience, the historic nature of her nomination as a Black woman, and the Senate’s bipartisan support for her in the past. Republicans wanted to know her judicial philosophy, the role of “dark money” in her nomination, and her position on court packing, among other things. 

Republicans also stressed conducting themselves without the “theatrics” that they said characterized the hearings of current Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

“The most recent Supreme Court nominee was subjected to repeated accusations that were nothing more than unfiltered religious bigotry against her,” Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska said during his remarks. “The nominee before her was accused of serial rape.”

Both Republicans and Democrats expressed interest in questioning Jackson about abortion.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California emphasized that the Supreme Court, in its current term, is deciding cases “on issues that are foundational to who we are as a country.” That included, she said, “a woman’s fundamental right to control her own body and make her own health care decisions.”

Her comments came as the Supreme Court prepares to issue a ruling this year in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that directly challenges the court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide. 

Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas wanted to know “why pro-abortion dark money groups like Demand Justice and anti-religious liberty groups are pouring millions of dollars into a public campaign” in support of Jackson. Demand Justice, a progressive group which does not disclose its donors, supports “reforming” and “expanding” — or adding more justices to — the Supreme Court.

Also from Texas, Republican Senator Ted Cruz outlined a list of issues to ask Jackson about: free speech, the 2nd Amendment, school choice, rising crime rates, and religious liberty as well as “the right to life.”

“Will a justice protect the rights of the people, the rights of state legislatures to enact laws protecting innocent life, protecting unborn life, stopping abominations like partial-birth abortion,” he asked, “or will a justice view her job as a super legislator, striking down all such rights?”

Pro-life leaders have expressed concern with Jackson’s past in regards to abortion. In addition to having the support of abortion groups for her nomination, Jackson co-authored an amicus brief in 2001 in support of a Massachusetts law that created a “buffer zone” preventing pro-life sidewalk counselors from approaching women outside of abortion facilities, according to the Susan B. Anthony List. Jackson’s past clients include pro-choice groups such as NARAL and the Abortion Access Project of Massachusetts.

Jackson also clerked for Breyer when he issued an opinion in Stenberg v. Carhart, which struck down a Nebraska law banning “partial-birth” abortion, other Catholic and pro-life leaders have warned.

For his part, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas emphasized that, among other things, “I’m looking for a justice who will protect the right to life of innocent infants instead of caving to the abortion lobby, creating whole new swaths of law out of whole cloth.”

Following the hearings, the Senate committee will hold a vote that, if approved, will send the Jacksn’s nomination to the larger Senate for consideration. Democrats want to finish the confirmation process before April 11, when Easter recess begins.

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, and ranking member Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa opened the hearings on Monday.

“There may be some who claim, without a shred of evidence, that you’ll be a rubber stamp for this president,” Durbin stressed. “For these would-be critics, I have four words: Look at the record.”

He pointed to her experience, and the historic nature of her nomination.

Biden elevated 51-year-old Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2021. But Jackson first became a federal judge in 2013, serving the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as a President Barack Obama appointee.

Jackson also received her undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, before working as a federal public defender. Her resume includes serving as vice chair and commissioner on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which establishes sentencing policies and practices for federal courts and advises both Congress and the executive branch.

If confirmed, Jackson would be the first Black woman to sit on the bench of the nation’s highest court. Biden first announced that he would nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court on the campaign trail.

As at her nomination ceremony, Jackson publicly acknowledged her own faith by thanking God during the first day of her hearings. 

“It is faith that sustains me at this moment,” she said. 

Jackson previously served on the inaugural advisory board for a Christian school in Rockville, Maryland, from 2010-2011. The school backed Christian beliefs on marriage, gender, and human life. During her confirmation hearings last year, she commented on her time at Montrose Christian School, which she described as a now-defunct K-12 private school. 

“I was aware that Montrose Christian School was affiliated with Montrose Baptist Church,” she said. “I was not aware that the school had a public website or that any statement of beliefs was posted on the school’s website at the time of my service.”

When asked by Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri about the First Amendment, Jackson responded at the time, “I do believe in religious liberty,” calling it a “foundational tenet of our entire government.”

On Monday, she promised senators a commitment to transparency, adherence to precedent, and a neutral posture. 

“If I am confirmed, I commit to you that I will work productively to support and defend the Constitution and this grand experiment of American democracy,” she concluded, adding later that “I hope that you will see how much I love our country, and the constitution, and the rights that make us free.”

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