Republican Senators Disparage Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Empathy

During Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearings, some senators implied empathy and personal experience should not factor in to judgements. But the Supreme Court decisions have always been informed by justices’ identities.

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 22. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

An article by the AP Thursday carried the headline: “Supreme Court nominee’s ‘empathy’ is flashpoint for Senate.”
Wait, what? 
The reporter, Lisa Mascaro, observed that empathy is apparently not a quality that Republican senators want to see in a Supreme Court justice: “Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said he was looking for a justice ‘who will make decisions based on the law, not based on personal experiences or preferences, not on empathy,’” in reference to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination.
Let that sink in.
By contrast, I would argue that too many of the sitting justices have shown no empathy in reaching their opinions that threaten to destroy people’s lives and futures. The fact that the life experiences of women and people of color have been missing from the Court for so long is what has brought us to this moment in our history when the Court is debating whether the Constitution guarantees that women should have full bodily autonomy.
Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) got it right when speaking to Jackson: “I want to tell you, when I look at you, this is why I get emotional. … It’s hard for me not to look at you and not see my mom. I see my ancestors and yours.”
He added: “You have earned this spot. You are worthy. You are a great American.”

And true to form, Jackson remained calm under pressure, even when Republicans called her character into question and employed racist far-right dog whistles. When Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) asked if she regretted her “leninent” sentencing in child pornography cases (an argument signaled out as a “QAnon-signaling smear” by the White House and others), she responded with grace and poise: “Senator, what I regret is that in a hearing about my qualifications to be a justice on the Supreme Court, we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on this small subset of my sentences.”
A vote from the Judiciary Committee on Judge Jackson’s nomination could come as soon as this week, when the committee will begin to meet in executive session—but panel rules mean a vote could be delayed till next week. We’ll keep you updated—and keep your eyes peeled next week for our recap of the hearings in the latest “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” episode.

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Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.