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Dems assail GOP posturing as Supreme Court confirmation barrels on

Republicans doubled down on the soft-on-crime accusations that the historic nominee shut down in the first day of questioning.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Wrapping up their marathon interview of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Republicans brought little new evidence for their attempt to denigrate the Supreme Court nominee.

Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Dick Durbin kicked off Wednesday's hearing by rejecting criticisms Republicans levied in their last session, including warped allegations that Jackson was overly lenient when handing down sentences in child pornography cases during her time as a federal trial judge.

“For many senators, yesterday was an opportunity to showcase talking points for the November election. For example, all Democrats are soft on crime, therefore, this nominee must be soft on crime. But you've made a mess of their stereotype,” Durbin said, speaking directly to Jackson. ”The endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police just doesn't fit with their stereotype of a Harvard graduate Black woman who is aspiring to the highest court.”

If confirmed, Jackson, a 51-year-old judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, would be the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court in its more than 200-year history. Public support for Jackson is higher than that for any recent high court nominee, with 58% of Americans backing her confirmation, per a recent Gallup poll.

Following Durbin's opening, Republican lawmakers continued to air grievances they had laid out Tuesday, with Senator Lindsey Graham, who previously voted to confirm Jackson to federal appointments on three separate occasions, pressing Jackson about how she made sentencing decisions as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Graham's questioning of Jackson followed in the footsteps of Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who was the first to insinuate that Jackson delivered lenient sentences in child pornography cases. Against that portrayal, however, her record is in alignment with the sentences handed down by other federal judges.

The hearing grew increasingly tense as Graham highlighted a handful of cases in which Jackson sentenced defendants to prison time below the time suggested by federal guidelines. As Jackson tried to explain the process she used to determine sentences for individuals convicted of child pornography charges, the South Carolina Republican interrupted her repeatedly.

Going back to the explanation she gave on the first day of her hearing, Jackson emphasized that federal sentencing guidelines were created prior to the age of the internet, when mass amounts of abusive material became easier to access and did not require movement through the mail. The birth of the internet has raised questions about whether federal guidelines need to change and if judges should be unilaterally adhering to standards that raise the severity of sanctions based on how much material someone possesses or has viewed.

"You can be doing this for 15 minutes, and all of a sudden you are looking at 30, 40, 50 years in prison,” Jackson said.

Graham interrupted her explanation.

“Good, good. Absolutely good, I hope you are. I hope you go to jail for 50 years if you're on the internet trolling for images of children and sexual exploitation.” Graham said, as Durbin called for Graham to let Jackson speak. “See, you don’t think that’s a bad thing? I think that’s a horrible thing.” 

Jackson said child pornography cases are egregious, but judges have a legal duty to consider the details of a case and dole out punishments that take into account several factors, including recommendations by probationary offices.

"I am trying to explain that our sentencing system that Congress created, the system the sentencing commission is a steward of, is a rational one. It is designed to help judges do justice in the terrible circumstances by eliminating unwarranted disparities, by ensuring that the most serious defendants get the longest periods of time," Jackson said.

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When she was confirmed to serve as a federal appellate judge back in June, Graham and Republican Senator John Cornyn were the two GOP members of the panel who voted to move her nomination out of committee. After their exchange Wednesday, however, Jackson’s chances of garnering Graham's vote looked slim.

Hawley went on to ask Jackson if she regretted sentences she had handed down in child pornography cases, a moment that garnered a poignant remark from Jackson.

"What I regret is that in a hearing about my qualifications to be a justice on the Supreme Court, we have spent a lot of time focusing on this small subset of my sentences," Jackson said.

Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and Harvard classmate of Jackson's, repeated Hawley's line questioning, grilling Jackson on child pornography cases. Later taking a break from his heated assertions, Cruz asked Jackson about whether she plans to recuse herself from a Supreme Court case evaluating race-conscious admissions practices at Harvard.

"That is my plan, senator," Jackson said.

Jackson currently sits on Harvard's Board of Overseers, one of the university's two governing bodies, and previously recused herself from two cases at the district level based on her service on the board.

Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina questioned whether Jackson, who served for a time as a public defender and as a defense attorney in private practice, had too much consideration for the perspective of defendants.

"It seems as though you're a very kind person and that there's at least a level of empathy that intersects to your treatment of a defendant that some could view as a maybe beyond what some of us would be comfortable with with respect to administering justice," Tillis said.

Mirroring in many ways the first day of direct questioning, Democrats rejected claims that Jackson was soft on crime, emphasizing the police organizations and prosecutors backing Jackson's nomination, as well as her family ties to police officers.

Jackson's brother served as a police officer in Baltimore, and one of her uncles was a police chief in Miami. Another was a sex crimes detective.

"I understand the need for law enforcement, the importance of having people who are willing to do that important work, the importance of holding people accountable for their criminal behavior. I also, as a lawyer and a citizen, believe very strongly in our constitution and the rights that make us free. And what that means to me is an understanding that, although we need accountability, although there is crime, we also have a society that ensures that people who have been accused of criminal behavior are treated fairly. That is what our constitution requires. That is what makes our system so exceptional," Jackson said

Praising her extensive record as an attorney and a judge both at the federal trial and appellate levels, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware celebrated Jackson's nomination.

"I think as someone who served in the Sentencing Commission, the public defender of the trial court, the appellate court judge, you have the ability see across the whole scope and reach of how the law impacts families, communities and our nation," Coons said.

While much of the hearing was bogged down by political accusations lobbed at Jackson, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont gave Jackson a moment at the start of the hearing to talk about what it means to expand the diversity of who sits on the federal bench, a trend she would play a part in as the presumptive first Black woman justice.

"When people see that the judicial branch is comprised of a variety of people who have taken the oath to protect the constitution and who are doing their best to interpret the laws consistent with that oath, it lends confidence that the rulings that the judge, that the court is handing down are fair and just," Jackson said.

As the questioning portion of her hearing drew to a close, Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, gave an emotional speech calling for lawmakers to refocus the hearings on the historic moment of Jackson’s nomination.

Booker, the only Black senator on the committee, compared allegations that Jackson was “soft on crime” to accusations of a secret communist agenda that were levied against Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to serve on the federal bench and a personal idol of Jackson’s.

“Any one of us senators could yell as loud as we want that Venus can’t return a serve. We can yell as loud as we want that Beyonce can’t sing,” Booker said. “But you know what, they got nothing to prove."

Speaking directly to Jackson, Booker delivered a message that drew tears from the Supreme Court nominee:

“You have earned this spot. You are worthy. You are a great American,” Booker said.

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