Ketanji Brown Jackson graduated among the top of her class at Harvard University. Not once, but twice. She practiced law for two decades and was nominated to the federal judiciary and approved by the U.S. Senate. Not once, but twice.
Beyond the intellectual credentials to occupy a seat on the court, she’s unique in having demonstrated the moral credentials. She spent two years as a public defender, defending not only those too poor or too odious to have paid representation, but our very constitution. After all, federal public defenders are government employees who put action into the words of the Sixth Amendment — the right to “have the assistance of counsel” for their defense.
Since President Joe Biden nominated Jackson, it's been clear that she’s had the votes to be approved for a seat on the highest court of the federal judiciary. And yet Republican senators wouldn’t let her pass without humiliating, interrupting, and jeering her throughout the three-day ordeal of her nomination hearings.
There was Josh Hawley who brought his obsession with child pornography to the hearings, cherrypicking her opinions to accuse Judge Jackson of being soft on child predators — despite the fact that her sentencing is in line with her peers on the bench. Even the conservative National Review thought Hawley went too far, writing, “the implication that she has a soft spot for ‘sex offenders’ who ‘prey on children”’ because she argued against a severe mandatory-minimum prison sentence for the receipt and distribution of pornographic images is a smear.”
There was Lindsey Graham who used the hearings as an opportunity to label Judge Jackson a terrorist sympathizer for daring to do her job as a federal public defender and represent detainees at Guantanamo Bay. In one telling exchange, Graham interrupted the judge several times to say that he thought that Guantanamo detainees should “die in prison” — endorsing a policy of indefinite detention in contravention to international law and basic human rights.
Finally, there were Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn. Ted Cruz took his time to review several books about anti-racism that he clearly never read. At one point he asked Judge Jackson if she thought that babies were racist. Marsha Blackburn asked if it was Judge Jackson’s “personal hidden agenda to incorporate [critical race theory] into our legal system?”
There’s a brutal irony to all of this. The proto-fascist right pans critical race theory to mean that all white people are racist. They leverage this caricature to foment and justify racist policy. As I’ve written in the past, critical race theory isn’t about individuals — it’s about institutions and policies. It’s about how racism too often excludes Black and brown folks from access or equal treatment. In that context, consider the spectacle that the GOP and its apologists created around the nomination hearings of the first Black woman ever to be nominated to the land’s highest court. Her credentials were questioned. An all-white crowd of senators questioned her loyalty to our country, asked if she had a “personal hidden agenda,” and dragged her reputation through the mud.
If critical race theory is about Black folks being denied from institutions of power, the GOP did more to prove the central tenets of CRT than anything Judge Jackson has ever said or done.
These histrionics were calculated specifically to dial into a niche set of grievances pumped and promulgated by the extreme right that don’t even bear repeating. Yet in making such a spectacle of their opposition, Republican senators inadvertently exemplified what they claim to oppose.
A hyper-capable Black woman was nominated for access to one of the country’s most powerful institutions, and the gatekeepers of that institution did all they could to deride her and keep her from entry. It serves a powerful message both about why Judge Jackson’s inevitable seat on the Supreme Court is so critical — and about how institutions operate to keep people like her out of them. In that respect, Republican senators may have done more to make the argument for critical race theory than any of the books they waved around.