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Fair Courts Update: Judge Jackson’s SCOTUS confirmation hearings begin Monday

This Fair Courts Update highlights Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Justice Clarence Thomas’s remarks on court packing, proposed changes to the judicial selection process in Kansas, and more.

Published: March 24, 2022

Senate Schedules Confirmation Hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson

On March 14, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings will begin on Monday, March 21 and end on Thursday, March 24. Since her nomination, Jackson has been meeting with senators from both parties, and both the White House and Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin have said they hope to win over some Republican votes.

Jackson has been confirmed by the Senate on a bipartisan basis three times—most recently last year, when she was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit with the support of three Republicans: Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Lindsey Graham. Collins recently met with Jackson and called the meeting “lengthy and very productive,” while Graham declared “the radical Left has won” in response to her nomination. Murkowski has not yet met with Jackson, however, she said “this is a different game” than the previous confirmation hearings.

To date, Jackson has been endorsed by 59 former Justice Department officials, 86 Republican and Democratic former attorneys general, retired conservative judges J. Michael Luttig and Thomas B. Griffith, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, among others. If confirmed, she would be the first Black woman and public defender on the Supreme Court.

Justice Clarence Thomas Criticizes Expanding the Court, “Cancel Culture”

Speaking at an event hosted by the foundation of former Republican U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch on March 11, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas asserted that proposals to “pack or stack” the Court would threaten the institution’s legitimacy.

At the event, Thomas also critiqued “cancel culture,” saying, “particularly in this world of cancel culture and attack, I don’t know where you’re going to learn to engage as we did when I grew up.” He continued, “If you don’t learn at that level in high school, in grammar school, in your neighborhood, or in civic organizations, then how do you have it when you’re making decisions in government, in the legislature, or in the courts?”

He also discussed the media’s portrayal of his wife, Ginni Thomas, who has come under increased scrutiny for her political activism and work with conservative groups that file amicus briefs in cases before the Court. While Thomas did not address the controversy directly, nor the calls for him to recuse himself from cases that relate to his wife’s work, he said his wife “is a good person” and called the media “the tawdry people.”

Kansas Lawmakers Advance Proposals to Eliminate Judicial Nominating Commission

On March 9, the Kansas Senate Committee on Judiciary approved two proposed constitutional amendments that would change the way the state chooses its high court justices.

Currently, justices are nominated by the state’s judicial nominating commission, which recommends three candidates to the governor to choose from for appointment. Both amendments would eliminate the commission; however, one amendment would have voters elect justices in statewide partisan elections, while the other would give the governor the power to directly appoint justices, subject to the state senate’s confirmation.

Kansas’s current system for choosing appellate court judges was adopted in response to a 1956 scandal in which an outgoing governor resigned his position after losing re-election and was immediately appointed to the state’s supreme court by the acting governor, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Republican legislators have considered similar proposals in the past, and the proposals considered this year are occurring at a time when the Kansas Supreme Court is expected to hear lawsuits challenging the legality of the state’s new congressional maps drawn by Republicans.

Maine Governor Nominates First Black Judge to State’s Highest Court

On March 7, Governor Janet Mills nominated Judge Rick Lawrence to fill a vacancy on Maine’s highest court. Lawrence, who currently serves as Deputy Chief Judge of Maine’s District Courts, will replace Justice Ellen Gorman, who announced her plans to retire in January 2021. If confirmed, Lawrence would be the first Black justice to sit on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in its 202-year history, according to the Portland Press Herald. His nomination will need to be approved by the state legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary and the state Senate.

Brennan Center analysis finds that as of April 2021, Maine was one of 22 states in which no high court justices publicly identify as a person of color, including in 11 states where people of color make up at least 20 percent of the population. The Brennan Center’s Alicia Bannon spoke with the Portland Press Herald about diversity on the court, saying, “it really builds public confidence in the judicial system, so everybody that’s stepping through the court system sees a judiciary with members who reflect the diversity of all the communities that are being impacted by the decisions the court makes.”