WASHINGTON — Engaging in legal conversation, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley was telling Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson last week how he met his wife while he was a clerk at the High Court.
Jackson already knew the story, he found out. She even “filled in some details for me.”
“So I thought she was very well prepared.”
Jackson was also prepared for the Republican senator’s questions about the Guantanamo Bay detainees she represented 15 years ago as a public defender and later in private practice. Hawley said after the meeting that he was still concerned about this part of his case, but found it open and engaging, with a “very high degree” of legal insight.
“I think his ratings will be very substantial,” he said.
Jackson, who sits on the federal appeals court and would replace retired Justice Stephen Breyer, is unlikely to need the support of Hawley or any other Republican to be confirmed, and may not win any of them. But as she circles the Capitol, moving from one Senate office to another ahead of her confirmation hearings later this month, Jackson is networking zealously, bringing a collegial tone back to a confirmation process that is was increasingly embittered during the Trump era.
“I want to make it a bipartisan vote,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said after Breyer announced his retirement. “I think it’s not just good for the Supreme Court, it’s good for the Senate.”
Democrats and the White House are hoping Jackson’s enviable resume, empathetic style and historic potential as the first black female judge will win at least a few cross-votes. And because her confirmation to replace the liberal-leaning Breyer would not shift the ideological balance of the court, Republicans aren’t spending much political energy opposing her.
Durbin and President Joe Biden have personally reached out to select GOP senators, promising to answer all questions and give them more time with the candidate.
The most accessible Republican vote is Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who has already received three calls from Biden and met with Jackson for more than 90 minutes on Tuesday. Collins, one of only three Republicans to vote for Jackson when she was confirmed at the circuit court last year, called it “long and very productive.” She signaled that the candidate is likely to have her vote.
“She takes a very thorough and careful approach in applying the law to the facts of the case, and that’s what I want to see in a judge,” Collins said.
Jackson was also prepared for small talk at this meeting, telling Collins within minutes that she got engaged to her husband in Maine.
“She passed that test,” Collins joked to reporters in her office as the two women smiled together for the cameras.
Even if other Republicans aren’t voting for Jackson, it’s clear she impressed many of them as she navigated the awkward ritual of meeting and hosting. Texas Senator John Cornyn praised her experience as a public defender and said she was “charming”. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis noted how prepared she was, a decision he called “wise.” Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse shook her hand and congratulated her as the two smiled for the cameras under a large buffalo head on his office wall.
The outpouring of some Republicans is a stark departure from recent Supreme Court nominations.
In 2016, after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Republican majority refused to vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee, current Attorney General Merrick Garland, and most Republicans refused to even meet with him. Democrats’ frustration with their dropped candidate was rife when President Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to fill the post the following year.
In 2018, Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to replace outgoing Justice Anthony Kennedy; his confirmation came after an explosive and combative hearing in which Christine Blasey Ford accused him of sexually assaulting her in high school, which Kavanaugh denied.
And Democrats have praised Judge Amy Coney Barrett, whom Trump nominated to replace liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg after her death weeks before the 2020 presidential election.
Republican reaction to Jackson has not always been positive. Before Biden nominated her, several Republicans, including Hawley, criticized the president’s promise to nominate a black woman for the position. Hawley called the pledge a “hard woke left”. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said it was “offensive” to have those criteria. Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker compared it to affirmative action.
The good vibes could also dissipate in the hearings if race comes to the fore or some Republicans make more personal arguments against it. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has so far signaled his ranks to avoid such questions and focus on issues they see as more damaging to Democrats, such as inflation.
Asked about Biden’s pledge to nominate a black woman, McConnell replied, “Honestly, I didn’t think it was inappropriate.”
Still, Republicans are sure to question Jackson aggressively during her confirmation hearings, which begin March 21, and criticize her for any moves they consider too left-wing. Hawley, Cornyn and Tillis — all members of the Senate Judiciary Committee — said they questioned whether Jackson was guided by a specific judicial philosophy.
Democrats who met with the nominee seem thrilled with Biden’s choice, gushing over Jackson’s eight years as a federal judge, his time as a public defender and his ability to connect with others — a quality that, according to them, could help bring it closer to the Supreme Court, as well.
Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono, a member of the judicial panel, said when she met Jackson, she asked the judge what stood out to her most about Breyer, whose cleric she had many years ago. She said Jackson responded that it was the judge’s ability to contact other members of the court.
“Even though she can’t convince others of the way she approaches a case, I think that willingness to speak and understand another perspective is a very important aspect of the kind of person she is,” Hirono said. .
Another Democrat on the committee, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, said after his meeting that Jackson had a “really engaging personality” as well as a superior intellect.
“What really struck me the most was his personal depth and warmth, and his intuitive interest in how real people are affected by his decisions beyond abstract legalisms,” Blumenthal said.