WASHINGTON - Tensions flared between Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and his Democratic colleagues on the third day of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, as Cruz criticized how the proceedings were being run and one senator in the hearing accused him of performing for television cameras.
Cruz caught heat from Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, on two separate occasions in the daylong proceeding. Durbin tried twice to move on to questions from other members over Cruz’s objections.
"At some point, you have to follow the rules," Durbin told Cruz at one point, banging his gavel.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas’ other representative in the upper chamber, questioned Jackson on Wednesday about court cases related to abortion and religious freedom. And two Black members of the state’s congressional delegation — U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green, both Democrats from Houston — attended the hearing in a showing of support for Jackson, who would be the first Black woman on the high court.
The first incident occurred as Cruz was nearing the end of his 20-minute questioning of Jackson, where he repeatedly asked her to explain her sentencing of child porn offenders. However, he interrupted Jackson — who appeared to grow increasingly frustrated with the exchange — multiple times while she was responding to his questions.
"Why did you sentence someone who had child pornography … to 28 months — 64% below what the prosecutors asked for?" Cruz asked.
Jackson, a former federal trial judge, said Cruz had picked a few cases out of her entire sentencing record to pursue his argument. Cruz — alongside several of his Republican colleagues — has scrutinized Jackson’s sentencing record in an attempt to paint the nominee as soft on crime. The senator has not voted for any of Biden’s judicial nominees.
Fact checkers from multiple news outlets have said Republicans’ comments on her sentencing record are misleading.
"It is to assign proportional punishment," Jackson said when asked to explain her view of sentencing in cases. "It is to do justice in cases where you have defendants who are convicted of the same conduct, but have different, differing levels of culpability."
Even as his allotted time to speak ran out, Cruz continued to ask questions on sentencing in the cases, leading Durbin to step in to force the hearing forward and allow the next person to speak. Cruz accused the chair of being afraid the American people would hear Jackson’s response.
Later in the hearing, Cruz attempted to enter into record a letter signed by all but one of the Republican committee members to receive more information on pre-sentencing probation records on the child porn cases in question. Democrats on the committee shut the effort down, noting that it was someone else’s turn to ask questions and that Cruz could submit the letter by hand.
"I know the junior senator from Texas likes to get on television, but most of us have been here a long time trying to follow the rules," said U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democratic from Vermont and senior member of the committee and currently the longest-serving senator with 47 years of service.
That comment echoed the vague frustrations of another senator from earlier in the day.
"I think we should recognize that the jackassery we often see around here is partly because of people mugging for short-term camera opportunities," said U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska who sits to the right of Cruz on the committee bench. Sasse was explaining why he didn’t believe cameras should be in the Supreme Court, shortly after Cruz’s first confrontation.
At another point in Cruz's questioning of Jackson, he appeared to dismiss the ability of transgender people to sue for gender discrimination, suggesting that a man could decide to change his gender simply to challenge a gender-based restriction in court.
"Tell me, does that same principle apply to other protected characteristics? For example, I am a Hispanic man. Could I decide I was an Asian man. Would I have the ability to be an Asian man and challenge Harvard’s discrimination because I made that decision?"
Cruz was referring to a lawsuit pending before the court alleging that Harvard University’s affirmative action policies violate the rights of Asians. Jackson replied that she couldn’t answer the question because it was based on hypotheticals.
The hearings are set to wrap up Thursday after testimony from outside witnesses. The committee will vote on the nomination and, if it approves her as expected, her nomination will move on to the full Senate. Democratic leadership has pledged to shepherd the process quickly.
Cruz’s arguments are unlikely to affect Jackson’s confirmation chances. Democrats hold a slim 50-50 majority in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast a tiebreaking vote. So far, Jackson looks to have little Republican support.
Beyond Cruz and Cornyn asking their questions from their committee seats, many Black members of Congress have made appearances at the hearing throughout the week. Two Black Texans were present Wednesday: Jackson Lee, who has attended the hearing since its start, and Green.
Jackson Lee, who is known for her persistence in making public appearances, twice walked up to shake the hand of the nominee as she walked into the hearing room following breaks today. In an informal press gaggle held outside the hearing room, she stood in front of a U.S. Senate podium and complimented Jackson on the historic nature of her nomination.
Jackson Lee also expressed distaste for the Republican senators who have continued to press her on topics like her sentencing record.
"I do think there is an attempt to fishnet her in, and she has been powerful in not allowing herself to be fishnet in," Jackson Lee said. "She is standing on her own credentials in this hearing, and I am sad that that is the journey they chose to do."
Green spoke about the emotional nature of Jackson’s nomination, recalling life during a legally segregated America.
"I understand what sitting in the back of the bus feels like," Green told reporters. "I’ve lived my life waiting for this moment, and I was just so enthralled with it. Literally, I had tears swell in my eyes as I heard her explain the importance of the moment for people — not just her, but for people."
Both Jackson Lee and Green also went up to speak to Cornyn during a committee break.
Green said he was thankful to Cornyn for providing him with a ticket, holding up the admission slip as he spoke. Cornyn has told reporters that he remains undecided, but leans toward voting "no" on Jackson.
This article originally appeared in the Texas Tribune.
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