Durbin to make history as he presides over Ketanji Brown Jackson Supreme Court hearing
The hearing to confirm Jackson as the first Black female justice starts Monday. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said his opening statement will “set the stage for this historic moment.”
WASHINGTON – When Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wields the gavel at the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, kicking off Monday, he said, “it will be one of the most important assignments I have ever had.”
The roots of Durbin’s congressional career are in the Senate, when, as a senior at Georgetown University, the youth from East St. Louis became an intern for Sen. Paul Douglas, D-Ill.
First elected to the House in 1982 from a downstate district and the Senate in 1996, Durbin holds the seat once held by Democrats Douglas and Sen. Paul Simon, Durbin’s friend and mentor.
Though Durbin has been the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate since 2005, he became a committee chair for the first time last year. Monday marks the first Supreme Court confirmation hearing Durbin, 77, presides over.
Durbin said he comes to Jackson’s confirmation hearing aware of its deep historic significance. President Joe Biden made good on his campaign pledge to nominate the first Black female to the Supreme Court.
Since the Supreme Court was created in 1789, there have been 115 justices, and 108 of them have been white men.
In a wide-ranging phone interview from his home in Springfield, Durbin talked about the Jackson hearing and his career.
When Durbin met with Jackson in his ornate Capitol office on March 2, she brought Durbin a gift – an old photo taken with another couple when she was a Harvard Law student coming to Chicago for a wedding.
Jackson told Durbin didn’t know anyone at that Hyde Park wedding back in the 1990s. She struck up a conversation with the friendly couple – who turned out to be Barack and Michelle Obama.
Durbin was the first senator to endorse the presidential run of Obama, the Illinois senator who became the nation’s first Black president. And on Monday, Durbin will preside over the hearing likely to yield the first Black female Supreme Court justice, a career arc Durbin said was deeply satisfying.
Jackson, 51, if confirmed, will also be the first public defender on the nation’s highest court.
The 22-member Judiciary Committee is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
Durbin will have to wrangle contentious GOP committee members mulling potential 2024 president runs, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, who is leading a charge calling Jackson soft on sex offenders – a misleading assertion worthy of three Pinocchios from the Washington Post fact checker.
“Among the 11 Republicans, there are at least four or five who are fire breathers, who for a variety of reasons are very confrontational of every nominee that comes out of the Biden administration,” Durbin said.
In advance of the hearing, Jackson met with 44 senators, including all on the panel. A White House source said more meetings with senators will take place after the hearing, to run through Thursday. In between her Senate meetings, Jackson has been prepping for her grilling with weeks of “moot court” sessions.
Durbin, is no stranger to Jackson – she appeared before the panel last year for her confirmation hearing to the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.
On Monday, the hearing starts at 10 a.m. Chicago time. Durbin delivers the first opening statement.
He said he wants “to set the stage for this historic moment. And I believe that’s important.”
Part of that means reminding people “when the Supreme Court began its first session, what America looked like. … a nation of hundreds of thousands of slaves … And women of course had no constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.
“And to think that now we’re considering an African American woman to serve on that same court. It is a long, many times painful journey that brought us to this moment.”
Durbin said Biden “asked me twice, as he asked every senator on the Democratic side,” if he wanted to suggest a nominee. Durbin declined, satisfied with the names that had already surfaced, including Jackson.
Durbin said “some very conservative Republican senators” told him “confidentially” that Jackson “makes a good impression. She’s smart. She answers their questions. And I of course share that feedback with the White House, so they know how things are going when the Republican senators report to me.”
Durbin is up for re-election in 2026. Asked if this may be his final term, Durbin said, “I’m not ready to say that. I’m just trying to stay healthy and fit as best I can and do a good job.”