When Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson sits down for her Senate confirmation hearing later this month, prepare for some ridiculously bad — if not offensive — attacks from Republicans on Jackson’s record in as a public defender.
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have spent months accusing President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees of being “soft on crime.” They’ve settled into this line of attack on Democrats in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, and they’re so eager to cement that message in the minds of voters that they’ve accused virtually everyone who come before the judiciary committee to be soft on crime, even when it doesn’t make sense.
Look how they treated Nina Morrison. She is a candidate for a U.S. District Court seat in New York. For the past 20 years, she has served as an attorney with the Innocence Project, where she helped get dozens of innocent people out of prison and off death row.
At his confirmation hearing last month, Republicans accused her of escalating violence all over America.
“Your entire record is deeply troubling,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) Morrison chided.
“Across the country, Americans are horrified by skyrocketing crime rates, skyrocketing homicide rates, skyrocketing burglary rates, skyrocketing hijacking rates car,” Cruz told him. “All of this is a direct result of the policies you’ve spent your entire life advancing.”
Cruz is about someone who has spent his career exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, actually paving the way for the true perpetrators of violent crimes to be held accountable. But Cruz and others have argued, one way or another, that Morrison was flouting the law.
“I will oppose you and anyone else the administration sends us who does not understand the need for the rule of law,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) promised during the hearing. Morrison, specifically calling her “soft on crime”.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tried to shame Morrison for breaking innocent people out of jail.
“Are you proud to have encouraged such a challenge among convicted murderers?” he asked her emphatically, referring to a man executed in Arkansas who made a sarcastic comment to a guard before being put to death. Morrison had just told Cotton that there was “significant” DNA evidence that this man, Ledell Lee, was innocent.
Republicans were also hostile to another Biden justice candidate, Arianna Freeman, who is running for a U.S. appeals court seat in Pennsylvania. Freeman, like Jackson, has served as a public defender, representing clients who cannot afford an attorney.
During his confirmation hearing last week, Republicans reprimanded Freeman for crimes committed by one of his clients in 1981 and for defending his constitutional rights.
Hawley intentionally described in gruesome detail what Freeman’s court-appointed client, Terrance Williams, was charged with: burglary, armed robbery, murder, and then another murder where he “drove this individual, the victim , in a cemetery, made her lie down beside him. a headstone, bludgeoned Mr. Norwood with a socket wrench, then a tire iron… then set fire to Mr. Norwood’s body.
“Do you regret trying to prevent this individual who committed these heinous crimes from obtaining justice? Hawley asked Freeman, who saved Williams from execution by proving his constitutional right to due process was violated.
“My office has been appointed to represent Mr. Williams in his post-conviction proceedings,” Freeman told Hawley. “We did it, as it was our duty.”
“I have very serious concerns about your nomination,” Hawley concluded.
Cruz also chimed in, accusing Freeman of being part of a Democratic strategy to “abolish the police” and his office of public defenders of being “anti-death penalty fanatics siding with capital murderers and ignoring the law.” .
These few months have been quite exaggerated and performative for the Judiciary Committee. But cutting through the drama, what’s not fun is what Republicans have actually been arguing: that poor people accused of crimes don’t deserve any legal representation, and the lawyers who represent them should be ashamed of it. make.
Carl Tobias, Williams Professor of Law at the University of Richmond and an expert on the federal judicial appointment process, called the GOP attacks “absurd.”
“Defendants charged with felonies have had representation since the Gideon SCOTUS opinion of 1963,” Tobias said, referring to the landmark Supreme Court ruling affirming that the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution requires states to provide lawyers to defendants who cannot afford to pay theirs.
“The vast majority of federal judges are former prosecutors and big legal partners; judges with different perspectives [like public defenders] can improve judicial decision-making,” he said. “Furthermore, whoever judges represented before taking the bench is not predicting how they will govern as a judge or showing that Democrats who appoint and confirm judges are somehow soft on crime.”
There have been many other instances of Republicans trying to paint Biden’s court picks as lenient on crime for no reason to. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) last week chastised a panel of three judicial candidates for refusing to say whether they agreed with a new wave of Democratic district attorneys walking away from a traditional crime-fighting focus that disproportionately affects the poor and minority accused, and instead emphasizes a holistic approach to conviction rates and long sentences.
Republicans on the committee also aggressively attacked current Massachusetts U.S. attorney Rachael Rollins for instigating violent crime and ignoring the law in her then-job as Boston district attorney. In fact, violent crime in Boston dropped dramatically under his watch.
Rollins said in an October interview with The Washington Post that the GOP criticism was surreal.
“I have no problem being held accountable for the things I’ve done,” she said. “I just want to operate in a world, in general, where things are factual.”
This is where Jackson comes into play. She will be the first public defender on the Supreme Court, if confirmed, in addition to being the first black woman on the court. Republicans have previously signaled that they plan to use their “soft on crime” attacks against her.
“This is a time when problems with the law and the justice system hit American families directly — from skyrocketing murders and carjackings, to lenient crime prosecutors effectively repealing laws, to the opening borders,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Senate last week when speaking about the Jackson nomination debate. He did not specifically mention his past as a public defender.
The White House is ready to pounce if Republicans attempt to prosecute it on this front.
“Judge Jackson is supported by the Fraternal Order of Police and comes from a family with a distinguished history in law enforcement,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said. “She spent her career fighting for the rule of law, which she did as a public defender. It is fundamental under the Constitution that every American has the right to a defense and that no one can be sentenced without due process.
He added, “The real disagreement of anyone criticizing Judge Jackson on these grounds is with the Constitution, not her.”
It’s no coincidence that the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee who have been the most vocal in their “soft on crime” attacks on Biden’s nominees — Cruz, Hawley and Cotton — are potential 2024 presidential candidates.
Some may have forgotten that they also salute the work of public defenders.
When he unsuccessfully ran for president in 2016, Cruz announced that Brevard County public defender Blaise Trettis was joining his Florida State leadership team.
“Our campaign has incredible support from brave conservatives across the state of Florida,” Cruz boasted at the time. “I’m honored to have so many top Florida leaders supporting our campaign ahead of the March 15 primary.”
Trettis represented a child molester in 2001 and argued that his client did not need to be confined to a secure facility. He has since accounted for attempted murder.