Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the former public defender whose confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court begins Monday, has been sharply questioned by Republicans for her work representing detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay. The Republican National Committee referred to Jackson’s “advocacy for these terrorists” as “going beyond just giving them a competent defense.” On Tuesday, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), said in a floor speech that Jackson had strong backing from progressive groups partially because of her history as a public defender, saying “the soft-on-crime brigade is squarely in Judge Jackson’s corner.” The attacks reflect what has emerged as a Republican effort to discredit Biden administration judicial nominees who have served as public defenders, by suggesting that they acted inappropriately in representing clients accused of serious crimes.
Democrats say the tactic ignores a fundamental principle of the justice system — that everyone has the constitutional right to be represented by counsel — and seeks to disqualify from the bench anyone who has taken that obligation seriously when it comes to the accused. The Republican strategy is a response to a push by the Biden administration to diversify the federal bench by nominating more people with experience in criminal defense work. The type of high-profile murder cases handled by some Biden nominees would have been considered disqualifying a few years ago; now the president, who himself served as a public defender early in his career, is seeking to name more jurists who have such experience. The nomination of Jackson, who would be the first public defender and the first Black woman to sit on the high court, will be the biggest test yet of whether a lawyer who represented accused criminals can draw Republican support. Her defense work and membership on a commission that reviewed sentencing guidelines will no doubt draw scrutiny during the upcoming hearing. “We have never seen anything like this,” said Clark Neily of the libertarian Cato Institute.