WASHINGTON — By announcing they will vote to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, three Republican senators are marking the historical moment by building legacies of their own.
Every senator has a voice, and some choose to use theirs. The three Republican senators — Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney — have broken with their party at critical junctures, despite the political risks of standing alone.
The three said separately that they don’t expect to agree with all of Jackson’s rulings from the bench. President Joe Biden’s nominee to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer will likely join the liberal wing of the high court, and is not expected to tilt its 6-3 balance toward conservatives. But the senators also indicated the Harvard-educated judge is more than just likable, well-qualified and possessing the judicial temperament to do the job. They said she is deserving of confirmation.
As the other Republican senators line up to oppose Jackson, the support from the three outliers gives Biden the bipartisan backing he was seeking for the historic choice, but may do little to shield them from the blowback of party leaders and activists back home.
The votes from Collins, Murkowski and Romney also serve as a rejection of the soft-on-crime attacks leveled at Jackson, some tapping into dangerous conspiracy theories, reminiscent of racist arguments senators made against the first Black nominee to the court, Thurgood Marshall, a half century ago.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) literally says Ketanji Brown Jackson might have defended Nazis at Nuremberg:
“The last Judge Jackson left the Supreme Court to go to Nuremberg and prosecute the case against the Nazis. This Judge Jackson might have gone there to defend them.” pic.twitter.com/K0eHZ56sGY
— The Recount (@therecount) April 5, 2022
Voting for the “historic nomination,” Murkowski said it was not only worth the political risk, but a rejection of a Senate process that “is growing worse and more detached from reality.”
It’s a measure of the nation’s polarizing times that what could be seen as a milestone for the country — the first time in the court’s 233-year history it won’t be made up of mostly white men — has devolved into another bitter, grievance-laden, political brawl.
Jackson’s nomination is advancing through procedural hurdles, including another vote Tuesday, and is on a glide path to confirmation in the Senate by week’s end.
While Democrats hold a narrow majority in the 50-50 chamber, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break a tie, her vote is unlikely to be needed.
“The confirmation of the nation’s first Black woman to the highest court in the land will resonate for the rest of our nation’s history,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday as he launched the weeklong procedural steps toward confirmation.
It wasn’t always guaranteed that Jackson, who was confirmed by the Senate to be a federal appellate judge just a year ago, would win over Republicans this time.
One key Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who voted to confirm her for the lower court, led the opposition during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on her nomination.
Along with other Republicans, Graham saw political value in using Jackson’s hearing to dredge up complaints about the partisan treatment of previous Supreme Court nominees during the Donald Trump era — from Brett Kavanaugh, who faced accusations of sexual assault from his high school years that he strenuously denied during his 2018 confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court, to Amy Coney Barrett’s fervent Catholic faith.
“If we were in charge, she would not have been before this committee,” Graham said about the Republican side ahead of the panel’s deadlocked vote Monday. “You would have had somebody more moderate than this.”
But personal political legacies can be as strong a draw for senators, who like to think of themselves as one of the 100 distinct voices in the Senate, despite the pressure party officials and others bring to bear on a vote.
Collins, Murkowski and Romney have all proven over long careers in Republican Party politics that they can be independent brokers.
They have shaped brands at home and beyond, occasionally displaying a centrist streak but also being willing to work pragmatically across the aisle with Democrats rather than reflexive opposition.
Collins, who won re-election in 2020, has long gone her own way to vote for a president’s judicial nominees, regardless of the party of the president in the White House. A notable exception was Barrett, whose confirmation in October 2020 she said she could not support so close to the presidential election.
Collins expressed hope that the Senate could get back to a place where there is bipartisan support for qualified Supreme Court nominees “because it’s important for public confidence in the court. The court is not supposed to be a politicized institution.”
Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee and the only Republican senator to vote to convict Donald Trump during both trials of the former president, has emerged as a new force in the Senate, helping to broker bipartisan deals on issues like infrastructure and COVID-19 aid. He declined to back Jackson just a year ago for the lower court, but once he had a chance to meet and review her record he said she “more than meets the standard of excellence and integrity.’’ He would run for re-election in 2024.
Murkowski faces perhaps the most precarious political climate because she is up for re-election this year in Alaska where Republican Party leaders have censured her over voting to convict Trump in impeachment over the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, among her other stances.
Alaska party leaders have endorsed Kelly Tshibaka, a Trump-backed candidate, ahead of the August primary. In the state’s new election system, the top four primary vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will advance to the general election where voters will rank their choices.
Yet, if anyone knows how to use political independence as a political currency, it’s Murkowski who in 2010 won a write-in campaign — voters had to write in M-u-r-k-o-w-s-k-i for Senate — after she lost the primary bid and party backing to a more conservative challenger.
Murkowski shrugged off the political attacks that could come from her decision to back Jackson as worth the risk.
“Is there any safe place in this polarized time?” she said.