Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson reached a historic milestone on Thursday, becoming the first Black woman ever appointed to the US supreme court. But before Jackson could be confirmed, she first had to navigate a brutal opposition campaign from far-right critics who challenged her credentials and outlandishly accused her of supporting child abuse.
The bareknuckle tactics used by some Republicans to discredit Jackson underscored just how far to the right the party has drifted and may foreshadow a new, disturbing “normal” for American politics.
The Republican senator Roger Wicker offered a preview of the ugly attacks to come when he said in late January, before Jackson was even nominated, that Joe Biden’s appointee would be the beneficiary of affirmative action because the president had already promised to select a Black woman for the post. That comment sparked outrage among Democrats, who noted Biden would have a wealth of qualified candidates to choose from to fill Stephen Breyer’s seat.
After Jackson’s nomination was announced in February, Tucker Carlson, the far-right Fox News host, took it a step farther by demanding that the White House release her score on the LSAT, a standardized test for law school applicants.
“So is Ketanji Brown Jackson – a name that even Joe Biden has trouble pronouncing – one of the top legal minds in the entire country?” Carlson asked. “[I]t might be time for Joe Biden to let us know what Ketanji Brown Jackson’s LSAT score was … It would seem like Americans in a democracy have a right to know.”
Carlson’s complaint seemed to ignore that Jackson is considered one of the most qualified supreme court nominees in recent history. She has served as a supreme court clerk, a public defender, a district court judge, a member of the US Sentencing Commission and a federal appeals judge. Carlson’s mockery of Jackson’s first name, which is pronounced “kee-TON-jee,” also struck critics as a racist dog-whistle.
But worse was to come.
The beginning of Jackson’s confirmation hearings last month spurred a new, alarming line of attack from certain Republicans. In a Twitter thread shared days before the start of the hearings, Josh Hawley, a member of the Senate judiciary committee, claimed Jackson had a “pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes”.
Hawley’s claims were quickly debunked by factcheckers and even conservative legal experts, who showed that Jackson’s sentencing practices for child abuse image offenders were in the mainstream for federal judges. One White House official dismissed Hawley’s claims as an “embarrassing, QAnon-signaling smear”, referring to the baseless conspiracy theory that Democratic leaders are members of an evil cabal involved in child sex trafficking. The left-leaning organization Media Matters reported that Hawley’s comments quickly spread on internet forums linked to QAnon.
But instead of abandoning the accusation when it was proved to be demonstrably false and potentially dangerous, more Republican senators joined Hawley in grilling Jackson about her handling of child abuse cases.
Lindsey Graham, who voted to confirm Jackson to the US court of appeals for the DC circuit last year, told her during the hearings, “Every judge who does what you are doing is making it easier for the children to be exploited.”
Graham, who previously voted for both of Barack Obama’s supreme court nominees and has now become a close ally of Donald Trump, serves as a case study in the Republican party’s move toward the far right.
“Lindsey Graham is the epitome of a political parasite. He needs to have a host in order to thrive,” said Tara Setmayer, a former House Republican communications adviser who left the party in 2020. “He did it with John McCain. He did it again with Donald Trump. And now he’s doing it with the Maga/QAnon base in order to maintain relevancy.”
Jim Manley, a former senior adviser to the late Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, said it was “shocking yet not surprising” to see Senate Republicans resorting to such tactics.
“It was one thing to work in the Senate and to watch traditionally conservative senators like Chuck Grassley start spouting Tea Party lines in 2009, 2010,” Manley said. “But to see more and more House and Senate Republicans spout QAnon-friendly talking points is a whole nother ballgame and shows to me that there’s a real poison moving through the Republican party.”
It should be noted that three Senate Republicans – Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney – supported Jackson’s nomination. When Murkowski and Romney announced their support earlier this week, the extremist congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene responded by explicitly accusing Jackson and her supporters of endorsing child sexual abuse.
“Any Senator voting to confirm #KJB is pro-pedophile just like she is,” Greene said on Twitter. “You are either a Senator that supports child rapists, child pornography, and the most vile child predators. Or you are a Senator who protects children and votes NO to KJB!”
Setmayer warned that Republican leaders’ refusal to condemn the rhetoric of Greene and her ilk will only encourage lawmakers to offer more appeals to QAnon supporters.
“They are in the driver’s seat of today’s Republican party, as much as the establishment wants to deny that,” Setmayer said. “And not only is it dangerous, but it undermines our democracy, when people like this are given a platform and are given power.”
Manley echoed that point, warning that some Republicans’ embrace of conspiracy theories will make it all the more difficult for Congress to pass even the most basic legislation, such as government funding bills.
“I’ve been saying for years the Senate is broken. But what I saw during these confirmation hearings has got me really concerned about our fundamental ability to legislate,” Manley said. “This is far beyond anything that I’ve ever seen before in my time on Capitol Hill.”
And there are no signs of this increased extremism among Republican members of Congress diminishing anytime soon. According to Media Matters, at least 59 congressional candidates in the 2022 election cycle have expressed some level of support for QAnon.
The success of those candidates would allow the QAnon-supporting faction in Congress to grow its ranks after the midterm elections in November. If that happens, the vicious attacks seen during Jackson’s confirmation hearings may become all too common.