Democrats abandoned Ketanji Brown Jackson. Black women came to bear witness

The absence of Kamala Harris was sorely felt during a vicious set of confirmation hearings

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Leah Daughtry knew she had to be there.

Even though Ketanji Brown Jackson wasn’t in the hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building as the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote ended in a deadlock on Monday, Daughtry turned up for one very important reason.

“It’s a historic moment, and I wanted to be part of the history, to witness on behalf of all of Black women, everywhere, especially my niece, to witness what would happen today,” Daughtry told me during a break before the vote on Monday. She was wearing her priest collar: she is an ordained minister, and a fifth-generation one at that. Daughtry’s niece is five, but the former chief executive officer of the Democratic National Conventions in 2008 and 2016 knew Jackson’s confirmation would send a vital message. “And so she will grow up understanding that the court includes someone that looks like her. For those reasons, the ceiling is lifted,” Daughtry said. “She won't ever live in a time where Black women were not part of the court.”

Republicans on the committee made it a point to rehash many of the same points they made throughout their questioning of her. Senator Tom Cotton — who is to the right of even the ranking Republican Senator Chuck Grassley on criminal justice — all but made Jackson seem like a criminal sympathizer. Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley used their time to push conspiracy-inspired questions about her sentencing on child sex abuse images.

Democrats seemed confusingly intent on downplaying what was happening. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin opined that only those few poorly behaved Senators “accused her of vile things in front of her parents, her husband and her children,” which wasn’t strictly true. This was a coordinated and personal attack by the GOP, and anyone watching the hearings could see that quite clearly. Indeed, Grassley himself disproved Durbin’s point almost as soon as he said it by ranting about how it was the Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s fault for poisoning the confirmation process during Robert Bork’s confirmation back in 1987.

Too often, it felt that Democrats were more concerned about preserving the sanctity of the confirmation process than they were about defending a nominee that they themselves would vote for. Their timidity — especially as the wife of one of the sitting conservative justices, Ginni Thomas, seems to have attempted to overturn the 2020 election — made it seem they had all but abandoned Jackson.

While Cruz asked if Jackson believed babies were racist and tried to paint her as a proponent of critical race theory, the first Black woman to be nominated for the Supreme Court reacted with calmness and gravitas. All the while, a series of accomplished Black women sat attentively in the audience, as if to form a phalanx of defense of Jackson. Among them was Donna Brazile, who served as Al Gore’s campaign manager, and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, as well as the aforementioned Reverend Leah Daughtry.

Also present at the event was Alfreda Robinson, an associate dean for trial advocacy at George Washington University Law School, who is this year’s chairwoman of the National Bar Association’s standing committee on judicial selection. “Why do we have to be here? Because, there's so much about [Jackson] that's like me,” she told me. “It was important to be here because she's an extraordinarily gifted, talented, lawyer, judge, person. It was important to support because we recommended her. We said that she should be selected, so it was important to do that.”

Throughout our discussion, Robinson, like Jackson, showed a deep and unadulterated love for the Constitution and this country’s system of governance, despite the fact that the law has often not loved Black people back. “In order for us to continue to have this democracy work, the people have to perceive that it's working. That there's fairness across the board. In other countries you don't ever have to worry about perception. You don't ever have to worry about that it's one rule, one opportunity. You don't have to,” she said.

She swatted down ideas about Jackson being soft on crime, particularly on child sex abuse images. “It's answered. It's been answered,” she said. “I think that she made an effective argument that, as someone, she believes that her job, as a judge, is judicial restraint. She doesn't make the law. If Congress doesn't like it, the job of Congress is to change the sentencing guidelines.”

For all the criticisms of her tenure as vice president — some fair and many unfair — Kamala Harris’s absence from the committee, where she made a name for herself grilling Justice Brett Kavanaugh, was sorely felt throughout Jackson’s hearings. Her ascension to the White House with Joe Biden meant there were no Black women on the committee or in the Senate at all.

“She means a lot to me, it’s been a long time coming in the history of our Supreme Court to have somebody like Judge Jackson on the court,” said Senator Mazie Hirono, the first Asian American elected female Senator, who was present. Hirono told me that she repeatedly compared Jackson’s record to that of Republican-nominated judges during the hearings “because the Republicans kept making her out to be an outlier.”

Senator Cory Booker was another frequent defender of Jackson’s record. “I think it’s just an extraordinary show of support. I was really moved by some of the people that came together here,” he said.

I asked Senator Amy Klobuchar why she thought Jackson had drawn such a large audience of well-wishers. There’s “a historic feeling, as our friend Cory Booker described,” Klobuchar said, “...People have been waiting a long, long time for this moment and they wanted to be here in person.”

From Phillis Wheatley to Harriet Tubman to Fannie Lou Hamer, Black women have worked tirelessly throughout American history to make sure that the country lives up to the ideals it proclaims.

Shortly after I had finished talking to Robinson, the chairwoman of the National Bar Association’s standing committee, she returned quickly to underline something. She wanted to make sure she had adequately defended Jackson from accusations that she supported critical race theory.

“She’s not a Crit,” Robinson said in reference to critical race theorists. “Period. And I’ve been around long enough to know the original authors of Crit, critical race theory. She’s not a Crit.”

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