Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was already held in favorable regard by the American public before the Supreme Court nominee sat for Senate confirmation hearings. But her popularity grew even more after the hearings, thanks to a tag team of Republicans who sought to portray her as soft on child pornography criminals, uncertain about the definition of a woman, and a fan of critical race theory.
Prior to the hearings, Judge Jackson held a 58 percent approval rating in a Gallup poll. And after nearly 24 hours of answering questions over two days, the percentage of respondents who said that they would vote for her if they were senators rose from 64 percent to 72 percent in a Marquette Law School national survey.
Support for Jackson in the Marquette poll among Black adults currently sits at 86 percent, among Hispanics it’s 76 percent, and among whites it’s 59 percent—easily making her the most popular Supreme Court nominee since John Roberts was elevated to Chief Justice in 2005. Yet , with few exceptions, nearly half the Senate is poised to vote against her history-making confirmation—exposing a disconnect with the broader sentiment in the country.
This could very well come back to bite the GOP come election time.
Roberts was confirmed with a vote of 78 to 22. His approval rating at the time was 59 percent. Jackson, with more than equal standing among the American public, is likely to receive no more than a handful of Republican votes—with all eyes on Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, who voted for Jackson last summer for the District Court, Mitt Romney of Utah, and two retiring senators no longer politically vulnerable (Rob Portman of Ohio, and Richard Burr of North Carolina).
It was big news when Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she would support Jackson. Collins has voted for every SCOTUS nominee since her election to the Senate in 1996, with one exception. She opposed Amy Coney Barrett’s rushed nomination a week before the 2020 election on procedural grounds, a vote that was popular in Maine, and which Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight said helped Collins’ re-election in a race that Democrats had banked heavily on her losing. Silver said Republicans are taking “a real risk” blockading such a popular nominee, adding, “Reflexive opposition to Supreme Court nominees may be the norm nowadays, but that doesn’t mean it is politically wise.”
“The only rationale for the GOP’s blanket opposition to a well-qualified nominee with exceptional judicial temperament is the fear of being primaried and the primal need to lock down the Trump voters.”
On the other side of the divide, Sen. Chuck Grassley (the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee), came face to face with the consequences of the GOP’s line of questioning while meeting with constituents back home in Iowa. A supporter told Grassley he found the attempt to portray Jackson as soft on child pornographers “just appalling,” and while he has voted for Grassley in the past (and noting that he’s been in office for almost fifty years and is the oldest man in the Senate), “now it’s getting to the time where I feel you’re not for the people, you’re for the Party.”
At age 88, Grassley is running for re-election, and has not yet revealed how he might vote when the Judiciary Committee meets on Monday to send Jackson’s nomination to the Senate floor.
All 11 Democrats are united in their support for her on the evenly divided committee, while not one of the Republicans has announced their support. But their votes are not needed; the Democrats can advance the nomination to the floor on their own. Collins’ vote, together with all 50 Democrats, allows President Joe Biden to claim bipartisanship and avoid having Vice President Kamala Harris break a tie.
Even so, how can this be?
Since we now know Jackson will be confirmed, it’s hard to see the political benefit for any Republican with national aspirations to oppose a nominee who is popular across political, racial, and gender lines. Many Black voters will likely view the vote to confirm Jackson as the most important vote a politician casts in his or her career. Getting it wrong can be a career-ender.
Nate Silver cites votes in opposition to Justice Brett Kavanaugh for the 2018 defeats of Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana—both representing states where Kavanaugh was popular.
“How does any senator go back to their constituents and explain why they voted against her?” asked Dan Goldberg with the Alliance for Justice Action Campaign. “People definitely are going to remember who was on the right side and who played petty partisan politics with this historic nomination.”
The only rationale for the GOP’s blanket opposition to a well-qualified nominee with exceptional judicial temperament is the fear of being primaried and the primal need to lock down the Trump voters.
“Republicans on the committee were not playing to the broader public opinion,” asserts Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. “They were playing to Tucker Carlson’s bookers so they can have viral moments. They all want to be the craziest voice in the room. They don’t want primaries, and they’re desperate for attention.”
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz was caught checking his phone during the hearings to see how well one of his outbursts did on social media, as Republicans showcased their preferred cultural wedge issues for the Fall midterm elections.
“Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’” Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn asked Jackson. When a perplexed Jackson declined, Blackburn took it as confirmation she was in line with the kind of progressive education Cruz and others were depicting as Democratic dogma.
The Republicans seem hellbent on running on these culture war issues, and whether they’ll pay the price for opposing the historic confirmation of Judge Jackson will be up to the voters.
However, Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, says he doubts these hearings will leave the kind of impact on the country as the Clarence Thomas hearings did in 1991. “We’re still talking about Anita Hill. I seriously doubt that 30 years from now we’ll be talking about Josh Hawley’s bizarre questions” attempting to tie Jackson to Q-Anon conspiracy theories about Democrats and pedophiles.
It’s true, the hearings will likely fade from memory sooner than later.
And we probably won’t remember the names of the Republicans who performatively voted against the eminently qualified Judge Jackson’s confirmation.
But 30 years from now we will be talking about the first Black woman on the court, her record, her rulings, and how she opened the door for others to follow.