WASHINGTON – Sen. Joe Manchin announced Friday that he plans to vote for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve on the Supreme Court, likely clearing the path for President Joe Biden's historic nominee to be confirmed. But Democratic hopes of securing significant Republican support for Jackson's nomination appear to be fading.
The West Virginia Democrat was a key vote to watch because he has bucked his party on some of its top domestic priorities. But he has yet to vote against any of Biden's judicial nominees, and he said he will also support Jackson, who would become the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
“I am confident Judge Jackson is supremely qualified and has the disposition necessary to serve as our nation’s next Supreme Court Justice," Manchin said in a statement, which came after four days of hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He also noted that her family has spent time in West Virginia, and “her deep love of our state and commitment to public service were abundantly clear.”
Manchin's announcement indicates that Jackson will likely have the support of all 50 Senate Democrats. Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who has joined Manchin in voting against large swaths of Biden's domestic agenda, hasn't yet said whether she will support her. But she too has supported all of the president's judicial picks, including Jackson for the federal appeals court last year.
A united Democratic caucus would guarantee Jackson's confirmation in the 50-50 Senate, as Vice President Kamala Harris could break a tie. Still, Democrats seem unlikely to confirm her with a robust bipartisan vote, dashing Biden’s hopes for a grand reset after partisan battles over other high court nominees.
On Thursday, just hours after the hearings came to a close, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said in a Senate floor speech that he “cannot and will not” support Jackson for a lifetime appointment.
McConnell slammed the liberal groups that have supported Jackson, and he criticized her for refusing to take a position on the size of the nine-member court, even though that decision is ultimately up to Congress. Some advocacy groups have pushed for enlarging the court after three justices nominated by former President Donald Trump cemented a 6-3 conservative majority.
He also cited concerns about Jackson's sentencing of criminal defendants, a subject that dominated much of the four days of hearings and was part of a coordinated GOP effort to portray her as soft on crime.
McConnell's position was expected, but the leader’s quick declaration could prompt many of his fellow Republicans to follow suit, thwarting Biden’s efforts to bring back the overwhelming bipartisan votes that were commonplace for Supreme Court nominees when he first came to the Senate five decades ago.
“I think whomever I pick will get a vote from the Republican side,” Biden said after Justice Stephen Breyer announced he would step down from the court this summer. As he started his search for a replacement, the president made a point of inviting Republican senators to the White House to hear their advice.
While many GOP senators have praised Jackson’s vast experience and qualifications, it was clear at the hearings that Biden's outreach had little effect.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee interrogated Jackson about her nine-year record as a federal judge, frequently interrupting her answers. Jackson, supported by committee Democrats, pushed back aggressively on Republicans who said she gave light sentences to sex offenders, explaining her sentencing process in detail and telling them “nothing could be further from the truth.”
One or more Republican could still cast a vote for Jackson’s confirmation, but the focus on crime dovetails with an emerging GOP theme for this year’s midterm elections and is likely to be decisive for many of them.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, who has been privately lobbying GOP colleagues to support Jackson, said after McConnell’s announcement that it will be “sad for our country and sad as a commentary on where the parties are today."
In the final day of hearings on Thursday, a top lawyers’ group said its review of more than 250 judges and lawyers found Jackson has a “sterling” reputation and “exceptional” competence and is well qualified to sit on the Supreme Court.
Jackson would be the third Black justice, after Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, and the sixth woman. She would also be the first former public defender on the court, and the first justice with experience representing indigent criminal defendants since Marshall.
During questioning Tuesday and Wednesday, GOP senators aggressively queried Jackson on the sentences she handed down to child pornography offenders in her nine years as a federal judge, her legal advocacy on behalf of suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay, her thoughts on critical race theory and even her religious views.
Many of the hours of questioning were spent on the specifics of the child pornography cases, with the discussion led by several GOP senators who are eyeing the presidency.
Pushing back, Jackson said she bases sentences on many factors, not just federal guidelines. Sentencing is not a “numbers game,” she said, noting that there are no mandatory sentences for sex offenders and that there has been significant debate on the subject.
Some of those cases have given her nightmares, Jackson said, and were “among the worst that I have seen.”
The GOP criticism was countered by effusive praise from Democrats, and by reflections on the historic nature of her nomination.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is Black, said he sees “my ancestors and yours” when he looks at Jackson.
“I know what it’s taken for you to sit here in this seat,” Booker said, as Jackson wiped away tears. “You have earned this spot.”
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman, Jessica Gresko, Lisa Mascaro and Colleen Long in Washington and Aaron Morrison in New York contributed to this report.