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First, a pity party — then Republicans pledge to probe Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ‘judicial philosophy’

You don’t have to be Black to hear the dog whistle.

Republican Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Ben Sasse. On Monday, Cruz (center) resurrected complaints that go back to President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 nomination of Robert Bork during Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearing.STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Congratulations on your nomination to the Supreme Court! We won’t attack like mean Democrats. Instead, we will attack like mean Republicans.

For Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the first day of hearings into Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court started out as a pity party over what they see as past mistreatment of conservative nominees. After that came promises sounding like threats to examine Jackson’s “judicial philosophy,” specifically in the context of support Jackson has received from liberal groups and activists. It’s all part of a strategy to put the first Black woman to be nominated to this post under scrutiny, not for her qualifications, which are stellar, but for her alleged political ideology — and with that, for her race. You don’t have to be Black to hear the dog whistle.


In the lead-up to this week’s hearing, Republicans attacked Jackson on the grounds that the former public defender did what public defenders do: She defended accused criminals, including detainees at Guatánamo Bay. By the way, the US Constitution establishes the right to a fair trial, which includes the right to counsel. If confirmed, Jackson would be the first public defender to sit on the court, a distinction Democrats see as a benefit. As Renée M. Landers, a Suffolk University law professor told me, “The Sixth Amendment provides for the right to counsel in criminal matters. Ethics rules for lawyers remind lawyers that representing the unpopular client is to be admired.”

Indeed, a foundation of American jurisprudence loops back to a courageous decision by John Adams, a Founding Father who went on to become the second president of the United States, to represent the British soldiers charged in the Boston massacre. However, with Jackson, Republicans do not see bravery, but someone whose priorities must be questioned. Such criticism “is also racist on a number levels — playing into the stereotype that Black and brown people commit crimes,” said Landers, who was the first woman of color to serve as president of the Boston Bar Association, back in 2003.


Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is sworn in for her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Of course, that’s not the way Republican senators are presenting their concerns. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa said he’s all in favor of lawyers who want to protect a defendant’s constitutional rights. But he’s troubled by those “who want to undermine laws that they have policy disagreements with.” More on that is sure to come; Monday was a day for Republicans to gripe about a nomination process that has somehow put conservatives in the majority on the Supreme Court, whatever unpleasantness they faced from Democrats.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas resurrected complaints that go back to President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 nomination of Robert Bork, who was ultimately rejected by the Senate after contentious hearings. Cruz also promised Jackson she wouldn’t be asked “about her teenage dating habits” or whether “you like beer” — subjects that came up during the even more contentious 2018 confirmation process for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused by Christine Blasey Ford of assaulting her during their high school years. “But that is not to say,” warned Cruz, that the hearing wouldn’t be “substantive” and focused “on your record.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also promised “no Republican senator is going to attack your character” at the last minute, as Republicans contend happened to Kavanaugh, who according to Graham was accused of “being basically Bill Cosby.” In Graham’s view, “it does matter” that “the most liberal people” threw in their money, time, and support to back Jackson, and he planned to interrogate her about it. Graham also said he had no fear of being labeled “racist” — even as he said something that sounded like it could be: “You’re the beneficiary of a lot.”


Then there was Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, who complimented Jackson “for sitting so stoically through all this senator talk” — as if “senator talk” would be a foreign language to a Harvard-educated lawyer and seasoned jurist like Jackson. Hawley also laid out what looks to be one of the primary lines of Republican attack against Jackson — her sentencing record as a federal judge in several child pornography cases, as well as positions she took as a member of the US Sentencing Commission. That, too, plays into the narrative Republicans have been trying to spin in advance of this week’s hearings, that Jackson is “soft on crime.”

But remember, they won’t attack her like Democrats. They’ll attack like Republicans. They won’t ask if she drinks beer, they’ll ask if she pals around with terrorists.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @joan_vennochi.