Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson Will Smile As Much As She Needs To
Because it's how you get the job done when racism is a pillar of the GOP's political strategy for 2022
Happy Monday—and today’s big event is the opening day of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Senate Judiciary hearings. This is a historic event, and we need to pause here for just a moment. If you know someone who will be watching, please
Let Ketanji Brown Jackson be an example to all of us.
Can you imagine interviewing for a job with 44 separate people, some of whom have said openly racist things about other public policy issues, invented culture wars agendas, or your nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States, the pinnacle of any legal career? And then, if that isn’t enough, you have to go on national television and, for the first hours of your job interview, listen silently to Republicans misrepresent your life, career, and credentials, not to mention dog whistling all their campaign talking points for the fall election?
Because of this, prominent Black women plan to be very present in this process, and all feminists need to follow their lead. She has to smile: we don’t.
That Jackson is still smiling in almost every picture is a miracle of patience and self-discipline. As I write this, her hearings—the first of four days worth of speechifying, questions, and testimony, some of which will be hard to listen to—have begun. Republicans are expected to characterize the nominee as soft on crime and attack her role in defending accused terrorists incarcerated at Guantanamo. Senator Josh Hawley, a member of the Judiciary Committee, will fluff his credentials as a 2024 presidential candidate by accusing Jackson of giving light sentences to child pornography offenders (which is basically just not true, but why allow that to foreclose some juicy video?) Some Senators will also undoubtedly echo, if more obliquely, rabid-dog Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson’s accusations that Jackson’s credentials and achievements are tainted by not having to meet the high standards that white people must meet in a legal education and career.
And still Jackson is able to smile. I couldn’t.
Of course, most women smile a lot. We are brought up to do that. Look at Susan Collins in the photograph above: Collins is rarely photographed without a smile on her face, and hers seems genuinely kind, even though we know she will fold like a paper napkin nearly every time her vote is called on to support her party’s worst instincts. When Jackson clears the Juduciary Committee, Collins, along with Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham voted to confirm her to the DC Court of Appeals and are possible yes votes in the GOP.
Utah’s Mitt Romney has also indicated that he is “open” to voting for Jackson. "If she is in the mold of, if you will, a center-left Democrat, that's probably the type of mold I could support," Romney told reporters last week. "On the other hand, if she is beyond the normal range of Democrats in the Democratic Party, that's something that I would find a bridge too far."
In other words, if Jackson isn’t the reincarnation of Lynn Stewart or Leonard Boudin, she would be ok. But even if these three Senators withold their votes, presuming Deomcratic Senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) don’t break ranks, Vice President Kamala Harris will break the tie in the Senate.
Judge Jackson will continue to be composed throughout the four days of hearings, even as she carries the weight of so many pasts on her shoulders. She is only the sixth woman to be nominated to the nation’s highest court and the fifth to make it to hearings. George W. Bush nominated his White House Counsel, the unpreposessing Harriet Miers, who had never served as a judge, to succeed Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It was a mysterious move anyway, but ultimately Miers withdrew her own nomination in the midst of a hubub over her qualifications. As NBC News explained at the time, “Bush’s conservative backers had doubts about her ideological purity, and Democrats had little incentive to help the nominee or the embattled GOP president.”
Four days later, Bush nominated Samuel Alito: in retrospect, Democrats should have gotten off their high horse and supported Miers.
As we know, Jackson will be a double first: the first African American woman to be nominated to SCOTUS, and the first with experience as a public defender. Court watchers predict that, even in the highly polarized Senate, Jackson will get the majority she needs to ascend to the court, particularly since she was fully vetted for the DC Court of Appeals, a common launching pad to SCOTUS, only last year. The reporting presents her as a person who, from an early age, knew how to confront the realities of racism and still, in the phrase made famous by the famous civil rights documentary, keep her eye on the prize. “At Harvard, Ketanji Brown Jackson Fought Injustices but Kept a Steely Academic Focus,” today’s New York Times headline reminds us.
This story emphasizes talking points intended to rebuke the Tucker Carlson approach to vetting Black women. Demanding Jackson’s LSAT scores, decades after her admission to Harvard Law, is the equivalent of asking for Barack Obama’s birth certificate. This kind of insult is a last resort when it looks like a Black person really has succeeded in overcoming every obstacle that white supremacy has to throw at them and made it to the top.
But it is also a way to send the message, and that message is: you don’t belong. In Jackson’s case, it was a high school guidance counselor who discouraged Jackson from applying to Harvard as an undergraduate; arriving at Harvard as an 18 year-old from Miami, without any of the assumptions about her right to the riches it offered and breaking down in tears; fellow white undergraduates hanging a Confederate flag out the window (don’t you wonder who they are working for now?) and confronting Harvard’s own systemic failure to hire, tenure, and retain Black faculty.
For today’s right—and I am not even going to say far right anymore, because this is the Republican Party we have—being a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law is simply inconsistent with not just being Black, but understanding Blackness as a core intellectual position. I would add “woman” to this too, except that in very recent memory, we saw Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett skate through her hearings without any Republican ever noting that her academic credentials and experience in the law were perfectly adequate, but utterly modest.
Similarly, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, if we are to put aside his documented record of alcohol abuse and the sexual assault accusations, is capable of extraordinarily hard work. But, as Ruth Marcus’s book-length profile Supreme Ambition (2019) emphasizes, Kavanaugh’s ascent to the Court was a decades-long campaign, not of pathbrealing legal scholarship, but of making sure that he was always connected to the people who could push him to the next rung of the ladder.
Probably one of the worst features of modern politics is how highly politicized Supreme Court nominations have become: most historians see Ronald Reagan’s nomination of conservative jurist Robert Bork in 1987 as the turning point towards a hyper-partisan process in which damaging the nominee expected to support the other party’s agenda became routine.
The hearings even generated a new verb: to “bork,” which meant digging deeply into a nominee’s writings, decisions, and beliefs to portray them as too deeply ideological for the highest court. “Robert Bork’s America,” Democratic Senator Edward Kenendy thundered within an hour of the nomination being announced, would be a place where
women would be forced into back‐alley abortions, Blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.
It all came true—and without Robert Bork, since his nomination was roundly defeated in the full Senate, 58-42, with six Republicans voting against their President. And conservatives are still wreaking revenge for this moment.
These are the pasts that will be in the room with Ketanji Brown Jackson, a woman who should get a unanimous vote in the Committee and in the full Senate. And yes, there will also be her smile, a smile that says, “This won’t be pretty, but like I always have, I will get the job done.”
Then, when these four days are over, like other Black women before her, she will make her own history—and remake ours.
Back in the 1990s the so-called “War on Drugs” represented a broad, bipartisan consensus in Congress: now decriminalization has become a serious policy position. “Indeed, around two-thirds of Americans now favor completely legalizing marijuana,” Maia Szalavitz writes at The Nation, “and the same proportion support ending arrests and incarceration for the personal possession of any drug, according to recent polls. And 83 percent consider the drug war to be a failure—nearly the same proportion that supported it in the 1980s.” How did that happen? Szalavitz takes her readers on an intellectual and political journey in which the impossible became possible. (March 21, 2022)
South Korean president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol is a self-avowed “anti-feminist” and blames the nation’s declining birth rate on government policies to ensure gender equality and women’s civil rights. Yoon’s campaign was yet another instance of the global influence of national populism: Yoon’s promise to eradicate the influence of feminism is not unrelated to state-sponsored attacks on reproductive rights, which are also tethered to the desire for more white babies in the United States. As Rachel Rashid writes for The Guardian, is similarly driven by resentful men: “only 34% of women in their 20s marked Yoon on their ballot paper, compared with 59% of men in their 20s, and 53% of those in their 30s.” (March 11, 2022)
Last month’s Wired has a terrific article by Darren Louicaides about the social media app Telegram: the American alt-right is flocking to it. It is currently a key element in the Ukrainian communications infrastructure. It also claims to be the most secure form of communication, even though it is not end-to-end encrypted. “In the world of social media, Telegram is a distinct oddity,” Louicaides. “Often rounding out lists of the world's ten largest platforms, it has just around 30 core employees, had no source of ongoing revenue until very recently, and—in an era when tech firms face increasing pressure to quash hate speech and misinformation—exercises virtually no content moderation, except to take down illegal pornography and calls for violence. At Telegram, it is an article of faith, and a marketing pitch, that the company's platform should be available to all, regardless of politics or ideology.” (February 8, 2022)
Political Junkie is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.