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Law students praise Ketanji Brown Jackson's poise at the Senate hearings

Law students from Southern University Law Center traveled from Baton Rouge, LA, to support Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at a rally outside the U.S. Capitol on March 21, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Samuel Corum
/
Getty Images
Law students from Southern University Law Center traveled from Baton Rouge, LA, to support Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at a rally outside the U.S. Capitol on March 21, 2022 in Washington, DC.

When Judge Katanji Brown Jackson entered the Senate chamber this week to face questions on her readiness to join the Supreme Court, she did so as the first Black woman in the nation's history to be nominated to that position.

For many Black law students and professionals, including a group of 150 who traveled from across the country to watch the historic hearing, Jackson's rise to likely associate justice gives a message of profound hope for what they too might one day be able to accomplish.

"I knew I had to be there. This is history. This is a moment. Also, she's a Harvard law alumnus, so I feel sort of a special connection," said Thomiah Dudley, a third-year law student at Jackson's alma mater, Harvard Law School.

Dudley was one of 100 law students selected nationwide to attend a series of events and watch parties for Jackson's nomination, hosted by the progressive organization, Demand Justice. The group also included 50 public defenders — a nod to Jackson's own background in that field.

"I see a lot of myself in her. I see a lot of my friends in her, and I wanted to be there to support," Dudley said, calling Jackson "overly qualified to sit on the Supreme Court."

The cohort of legal professionals cheered on Jackson as she faced questions from Republicans about her past cases, particularly those relating to child sex abuse, and on what school of thought she would bring to determining the constitutionality of high-profile cases.

Republicans had vowed to oppose President Joe Biden's nominees to the court, and when news of Justice Stephen Breyer's imminent retirement broke, the GOP quickly mobilized to attack potential nominees who might replace the longtime liberal justice on the bench.

When Jackson emerged as Biden's choice, Republicans sought to paint the judge, who also served at one time as a public defender, as being soft on crime.

Particularly, some sentencing decisions in child pornography cases drew GOP fire. But Jackson's measured responses throughout the three days of questioning solidified the support of many onlookers, who reveled in what it would mean to have a Black woman sit on the bench for the first time in the court's 233-year history.

"The fact of the matter is that I'm the father of three black girls, right? And to be able to tell them that finally, someone who is Black — female nonetheless — is finally on the precipice of a mountain that has never been climbed before by any other Black woman, is huge," said Edrius Stagg, a third-year law student at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge.

"I can look at them in the face and be honest when I say everything is possible."

Jackson's appearance in the Senate also seemed to buy her the votes she would need for confirmation.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — whose break from Democrats on a number of politically fraught votes had worried some as to whether he would support Biden's nominee — announced on Friday he would vote in favor of Jackson's confirmation, all but assuring her path to join the bench.

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson answers questions from Sen. Josh Hawley during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 22, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson answers questions from Sen. Josh Hawley during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 22, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

A question of optics

For some, the optics of seeing Jackson a Black woman defend her credentials to a group of largely white, predominantly male detractors, was a familiar scene. It has played out, students said, in workplaces the world over and across the socioeconomic spectrum.

During a hearing that included meaty soundbite opportunities for Republicans to question Jackson's view on the meaning of life and whether she supported critical race theory, there were also brief moments of levity and raw emotion, notably from New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

"You faced insults here that were shocking to me," Booker said directly to Jackson.

"You didn't get here because of some left-wing agenda," Booker said. "You didn't get here because of some dark money groups. You got here how every Black woman in America who's gotten anywhere has done, by being like Ginger Rogers said: 'I did everything Fred Astaire did but backward, in heels.'" Booker was referencing the famous dancing duo.

Booker called the attacks on Jackson's record "dangerous" and "disingenuous," noting the complexities of cases that had been boiled down to their basest points in order to damage Jackson's image.

"I see my ancestors and yours," Booker said, drawing tears from some in the audience, including Jackson herself.

"I'm not gonna let my joy be stolen," he continued. "Because I know, you and I, we appreciate something that we get that a lot of my colleagues don't."

And while Jackson's opponents peppered her with politically polarizing questions, her supporters grew even more convinced that Jackson was qualified for the job.

"To see her hold her composure and just answer the questions just to the best of her capabilities was just really great to see," said Jasmine McMillion, a third-year law student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University College of Law.

"Going into the legal profession, I know I would have to deal with microaggressions, but she taught me a way of how to deal with it," McMillion said.

"I don't always have to combat it with the same energy, or same nastiness," she continued. "I could just hold my composure, and be calm... like she did."

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