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GOP plays for keeps with Supreme Court nominations

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Ketanji Brown Jackson, by every legal and judicial standard, is almost a judicial central-casting SCOTUS pick. Her credentials are impeccable. She has garnered loads of awards for legal acumen. She was confirmed three times by the Senate, which included several GOP senators. She has a near-storybook compelling personal life experience resume.

The GOP already has a conservative to ultra-conservative near-lock on the SCOTUS. Jackson on the SCOTUS will do absolutely nothing to change that. She will still be part of a very distinct moderate to liberal minority. Confirming Jackson then, at worst, should have been just a day or two of token theatrics by a couple of GOP senators. Then move quickly to confirm her with ideally two or three GOP senators voting for confirmation to at least give the vote a smidgen of bipartisanship. That didn’t happen for a very horrible reason — in fact, two horrible reasons.

One is the brutal in-your-face political jockeying that confirming a fresh SCOTUS judge has sunk to. The court became the right’s main prize during the tenure of Chief Justice Earl Warren. The right-wing routinely railed at the Warren court for its liberal rulings upholding and expanding civil and voting rights, labor, environmental, and civil liberties protections, abortion, and reining in corporate abuses. Conservatives viewed the high court as an unapologetic advocate of activist liberalism.

The right plainly wanted more judges on the bench who would toe the ultra-conservative line. The court became even more important when it became clear that having more conservatives in Congress was not enough to roll back gains in civil, women’s, and labor rights of the past half-century. The right correctly saw the Supreme Court not just as a neutral arbiter to settle legal disputes, but a lethal weapon to skirt congressional gridlock. Trump and his hard-right conservative backers are fully aware that the court’s power to be de facto legislators could last for decades. Presidents and congresspersons come and go, but justices can sit there until death if they choose.

The SCOTUS confirmation wars escalated with the death of Antonin Scalia in February 2016. His replacement was then-President Obama’s call, and the consensus was that a moderate conservative would have the best chance of getting confirmed.

Obama nominated Merrick Garland in March 2016. He was the consummate moderate and seemed least objectionable to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP. Wrong! McConnell said no — no confirmation hearings, no confirmation votes, and ultimately no Garland confirmation. His play for time worked magnificently. With the Scalia seat still vacant, Trump nominated a jurist who would adhere closely in rulings and opinions to the pro-corporate, anti-labor, anti-environment control, and regulatory rules that were the hallmark of the GOP.

Ketanji Brown Jackson took the carefully calibrated heat during the confirmation hearings from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and other GOP senators for another insidious reason: The GOP will play hardball at every turn to assert its political dominance. If it took tossing out red herring irrelevancies such as critical race theory, soft on crime and pornography, transgender advocacy to muck up a SCOTUS confirmation hearing and taint Jackson, it was fully prepared to do that.

With the 2022 midterms around the corner, Jackson was the pawn for the GOP to further sharpen its take-no-prisoners political hit game on the Democrats. Jackson will be confirmed. But she will be confirmed almost certainly without a single GOP senator backing her. The Jackson assault is the latest example that the GOP plays for keeps.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.