Confirmation turns ugly as Republicans dig in on child porn cases

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s second day of questioning before senators took on a nastier, more partisan tone as Republicans grilled the Supreme Court nominee relentlessly on her handling of child pornography cases.

After showing a cheerful and patient demeanor during the first two days of the confirmation hearings, Jackson started to show signs of exasperation on Wednesday as two potential White House hopefuls, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and others repeatedly hammered her over the sentences in those cases.  

Toward the end of the hearing, she wiped tears off her face after Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) accused his Republican colleagues of treating her unfairly and expressed his own personal joy and confidence that she would become the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.  

When Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) finally gaveled the day to an end, he apologized to Jackson for the way some Republicans treated her.  

“My colleagues promised a fair and respectful hearing,” he said. “There were a few obvious glaring exceptions. I’m sorry for that.” 

The harshest questions came from Cruz and Hawley, who pressed Jackson over the disturbing details of those cases, as well as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a senior member of the panel who voted last year to confirm her to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.   

Graham, a close ally of former President Trump, set the tone early by going well over his allotted time to challenge what he characterized as Jackson’s lenient sentencing in child pornography cases. 

Jackson reminded Graham that judges strive to reduce what she called “unwarranted disparities” in sentences, even for what she called “horrible” crimes.  

Her explanations drew a rebuke from Graham, who has previously voted for every Supreme Court nominee he has considered during his Senate career.  

“I think you’re doing it wrong. And every judge who is doing what you’re doing is making it easier for children to be exploited,” Graham told the nominee.   

As Jackson tried to explain the methodology for sentencing defendants in child pornography cases, Graham interrupted her to say he hoped offenders go to jail for 50 years if they troll online for explicit images of children.  

His brusque treatment of the nominee during the second round of questions left little doubt he’s likely to oppose her nomination, though he declined to tell reporters later in the day how he would vote.  

Jackson’s face flashed frustration at times while Graham thundered about the dangers of child pornography and repeatedly cut her off as she tried to answer his questions. 

He also grilled her about how she would feel if she were “ambushed” with a last-minute allegation of personal misconduct, something he insisted Democrats did during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process in 2018.  

The line of questioning left Jackson at a loss for how to respond. She said she didn’t closely follow those hearings and didn’t have any comment on the Senate’s procedures.

That prompted an incredulous interjection from Durbin, who exclaimed, “Senator, she’s had nothing to do with the Kavanaugh hearing,” and admonished Graham to let her finish her replies without being interrupted.  

Tensions in the room were turned up a few notches when Cruz got his turn to ask questions.  

Cruz again brought up the seven child pornography cases in which Jackson handed down prison sentences below what prosecutors recommended, a subject that he and Hawley discussed at length during Tuesday’s hearing.  

Jackson appeared tired of having to repeat the answers she gave to similar inquiries previously in the hearings. 

“I have spoken at length throughout this hearing about these cases. I’ve said what I’m going to say, which is I’ve taken every case seriously. These are very horrible crimes—” she began before Cruz cut her off.  

“I’m asking you specifically about this case,” Cruz said, referring to United States v. Hess, in which Jackson gave the defendant the mandatory minimum sentence of 60 months in prison.   

Jackson reiterated: “I’ve taken every case seriously.” 

But Cruz interrupted her again, frustrated that she wouldn’t discuss details of the case he brought up.  

“So you’re not going to answer that?” he asked. 

Then Cruz pressed her on another case, United States v. Cooper, pouring over some of the disturbing details of the crime. 

“Why did you sentence someone who had child pornography of toddlers being sexually abused to 28 months, 64 percent below what the prosecutors asked for?” he demanded.    

Jackson responded by saying he was overlooking her full record by returning again and again to the child pornography cases.  

“You’ve picked out, I don’t know, seven, eight cases. I’ve sentenced more than 100 cases. In every case, I look at the evidence, I look at the recommendations of not just the government because my duty as a judge is to consider all of the arguments that are made in a case,” she said. 

After Cruz continued to cut her off, Durbin finally stepped in and exhorted his colleague to let her respond.

That then prompted a fight between Cruz and Durbin over how much extra time the Texas senator would get to further question the nominee.  

Unlike earlier in the day, when there was a spirit of relative collegiality in the room, Durbin this time abruptly ended Cruz’s questions by banging his gavel loudly and moving to Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). 

“Bang it as loud as you want,” Cruz said, undeterred by the commotion. 

This provoked Durbin to wearily respond: “I can just tell you at some point you have to follow the rules.” 

When the committee took a short break for lunch, Cruz briefed his Republican colleagues on the hearing at a meeting of the Senate Republican Steering Committee. One senator who attended the meeting said that Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), another member of the Judiciary panel, described Jackson as a far-left nominee. 

By the time Hawley got his chance to grill the nominee for a second round of questions, Jackson appeared to be running out of patience talking about the seven child pornography cases.

The Missouri senator asked her multiple times whether she regretted giving one 18-year-old defendant in a child pornography case a “slap on the wrist” three-month sentence when prosecutors recommended two years.  

“Judge, you gave him three months. Do you regret it or not?” he demanded.  

Jackson replied: “What I regret is that in a hearing about my qualifications to be a justice on the Supreme Court, we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on this small subset of my sentences.” 

At one point during the intense exchange with Hawley, Jackson appeared to turn to Durbin, who was sitting in the middle of the dais, and slightly raised her hands in apparent frustration or exasperation. 

The harsh rapid-fire questions from Graham, Cruz and Hawley later drew condemnation from Democrats on the panel.  

“This is a new low,” Booker said when it was his turn to ask questions.  

He wondered aloud why Republicans didn’t raise any of the same issues when Jackson was confirmed with bipartisan support, including Graham's vote, to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last year.    

He called the allegations and implications they made “meritless to the point of demagoguery,” quoting from the conservative National Review magazine.

Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) grumbled toward the very end of the hearing that some of his Republican colleagues had injected “poison” into the proceedings. 

"You've had a lot of poison thrown at you, and you've responded with substance and truth," he told Jackson.

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