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Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and the Slowly Bending Arc of Justice

ColumnMarch 24, 2022
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By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson faced almost 24 hours of often hostile interrogation over two days before the Senate Judiciary Committee as its members consider her for the U.S. Supreme Court. The 51-year-old federal appeals court judge is the first African-American woman nominated to the highest court, and also the first public defender. Her nomination is historic. But her presence, as a Black woman, poised to secure a lifelong appointment to one of the most powerful positions in the United States, proved to be just too much for many on that Senate panel. A small cohort of Republican senators relentlessly smeared Judge Jackson. She remained poised throughout, answering questions with calm authority.

“I was born in this great nation, a little over 50 years ago,” Judge Jackson said in her opening remarks on Monday. “Congress had enacted two Civil Rights Acts in the decade before, and like so many who had experienced lawful racial segregation firsthand, my parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, left their hometown of Miami, Florida, and moved to Washington, D.C., to experience new freedom.”

Judge Jackson continued, “My parents were public school teachers. To express both pride in their heritage and hope for the future, they gave me an African name, Ketanji Onyika, which they were told means ‘lovely one.’”

Jackson attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and pursued a distinguished legal career. She clerked for several federal judges, including Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who she will replace, if confirmed.

The Republican fusillade had three main thrusts: first, her work as a federal public defender, representing prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, which led Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton to ask, “Do you think most detainees at Guatanamo Bay are mostly terrorists or mostly, I don’t know, innocent goat farmers?”

Ketanji Brown Jackson explained how the Supreme Court decided that even those embattled prisoners had rights.

“Judge Jackson was one of many hundreds of lawyers…to challenge this remarkable authoritarian experiment in Guantánamo that actually held exclusively Muslim prisoners in an island, without any protections of law, where they were subject to persistent torture and arbitrary detention based on executive say-so,” Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said on the Democracy Now! news hour. “She’s operating in the highest traditions of the law. It’s lawyers in the legal project that exposed so many of the underlying lies in Guantánamo, lies about dangerousness, lies about humane treatment, lies about national security and compliance with law. Her work should be valorized.”

A second attack assailed Judge Jackson’s sentencing of people convicted of child pornography, accusing her of leniency. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, well-known for the upraised fist power salute he gave to the January 6th insurrectionists as they descended on the U.S. Capitol, launched the assault, which was subsequently embraced by others such as Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham. The accusations were widely debunked. A conservative career federal prosecutor with extensive experience dealing with child pornography wrote in the staunchly rightwing National Review that Hawley’s allegations were “meritless to the point of demagoguery.” Judge Brown has been endorsed by many police organizations and victims advocacy groups around the country.

The third attempt at character assassination by the Republican senators exposed the racism at the core of their contempt. Sen. Tom Cotton attempted to link her to “the racist vitriol known as ‘critical race theory.’” Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn asked the judge, “Is it your personal hidden agenda to incorporate critical race theory into our legal system?” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz waved a copy of a children’s book, “Antiracist Baby” by National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi. “Do you agree with this book…that babies are racist,” Cruz asked, completely mischaracterizing the book’s message. The book is read at a private school on the board of which Judge Jackson sits, where she has no influence on the curriculum.

“I’m not letting anybody in the Senate steal my joy,” Democrat Cory Booker, the only African American on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said to Judge Jackson. “I see my ancestors and yours…Nobody’s going to steal that joy. You have earned this spot. You are worthy.”

Senator Booker invoked his personal hero, Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and went on to be one of the most courageous and successful conductors of the Underground Railroad, repeatedly leaving safety in the North, risking reenslavement in the South to lead enslaved people to freedom. She led troops in the Civil War, and worked for women’s suffrage.

Harriet Tubman’s birth date is unknown, but some estimate it as March, 1822 – exactly 200 years before Judge Jackson’s historic Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and just over 200 years after the first Africans were sold into slavery in North America in 1619. The arc, 400 years long, is bending towards justice.

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