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Some Republican senators may have grilled Judge Jackson as part of a larger campaign

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When it holds Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the Senate Judiciary Committee provides a national stage for its members. Three Democrats on the panel ran for president in 2020, and several Republicans on the committee are potential 2024 candidates. They used their time in the spotlight to press Ketanji Brown Jackson about rising crime rates and culture war issues. NPR's Deirdre Walsh reports on the unofficial campaign that is less about getting answers and more about getting attention.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: For those GOP senators who want to showcase their conservative credentials with their base, accusing the Democrats' Supreme Court nominee of being soft on crime was a strategy to get a result - headlines and viral moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Let's take a little look at Senator Hawley on that issue.

SEAN HANNITY: Here's Senators Graham and Cruz from earlier today.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Joining us now is Senator Tom Cotton, who was part of this - well, I call it a farce.

WALSH: Missouri Republican Josh Hawley focused on child pornography cases. He pressed Jackson about an 18-year-old convicted for sharing graphic sexual images and why Jackson gave him a shorter sentence than was recommended.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH HAWLEY: Judge, he was 18. These kids are 8. I don't understand you saying to him that they're peers and that therefore you were viewing sex acts between children who are not much younger than you and that that's somehow a reason to only give him three months. Help me understand this.

WALSH: Jackson walked through the process, which includes guidelines Congress created.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KETANJI BROWN JACKSON: That is what Congress requires. Once...

HAWLEY: But you had discretion, Judge. You admit that, right? I just want to be...

BROWN JACKSON: Senator, sentencing is a discretionary act of a judge, but it's not a numbers game.

WALSH: Fact-checks from multiple news outlets and even conservative legal experts found Hawley's focus on a subset of cases misleading. And others on the panel acknowledged her record was in line with most federal judges. Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz also focused on child porn cases. He used his televised time to try to tie Jackson to critical race theory, an academic theory that animates many in his party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: It views every conflict as a racial conflict. Do you think that's an accurate way of viewing society and the world we live in?

BROWN JACKSON: Senator, I don't think so, but I've never studied critical race theory, and I've never used it. It doesn't come up in the work that I do as a judge.

WALSH: Another GOP member, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, kept with the theme that Jackson was too lenient on criminals, listing statistics about murder rates in major cities and asking her this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM COTTON: Does the United States need more or fewer police?

WALSH: Jackson, who was endorsed by major law enforcement groups and has family members working as police, noted that this is an issue for policymakers, not judges. Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin called out Republicans for posturing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICK DURBIN: For many of senators, yesterday was an opportunity to showcase talking points for the November election.

WALSH: The White House criticized Hawley for dabbling in conspiracy theories from QAnon, a right-wing fringe movement, which promotes baseless theories about Democrats and pedophilia. Hawley shot back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAWLEY: So if they want to dismiss parents' concerns about their children's safety, and they want to dismiss concerns about crime as a conspiracy theory, take that argument to the polls.

WALSH: Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee are also mentioned as possible 2024 candidates and had turns in the cable news spotlight. North Dakota Republican Senator Kevin Cramer defended his GOP colleagues for raising these issues.

KEVIN CRAMER: I never apologize for the politics of this process because that's what our founders created. And politics works. That's what keeps all of us accountable.

WALSH: But he also acknowledged there could be a consequence for his colleagues if they do run for higher office.

CRAMER: They have to live with the results of their inquiry as much as she has to live with the results of her answers. And if their inquiry fires up the base but makes them unelectable, they live with that.

WALSH: Democrats are already blasting these Republicans for how they treated the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court. Deirdre Walsh, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.