Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, opened the hearing by putting Jackson’s nomination in historical context, noting that of 115 Supreme Court justices, 108 have been white men.
“Not a single justice has been a black woman,” Durbin said. “You, Judge Jackson, can be the first.”
“It’s not easy being the first,” he added. “But your presence here today, your willingness to brave this process, will give inspiration to millions of Americans who see themselves in you.”
At the hearing Monday, Jackson and the senators will make their opening statements establishing the arguments for and against her confirmation. Jackson will be introduced by Judge Thomas Griffith, formerly of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Lisa Fairfax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. Jackson will then answer questions from the members on Tuesday and Wednesday, and witnesses will testify on Thursday. Democrats hope to confirm Jackson by early April.
No Democratic senators have signaled they will oppose Jackson, and some Republicans have expressed openness to supporting her. In the 50-50 Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris could break a tied vote and confirm Jackson to the Supreme Court.
But many Republican senators are expected to oppose the nomination and some preemptively defended themselves from any criticisms that voting against Jackson would be perceived as sexist or racist, noting that Democrats have opposed diverse picks in the past because of their judicial philosophy.
“I’ll be looking to see whether Judge Jackson is committed to the Constitution as originally understood,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
Republicans previewed on Monday their attempts to portray Jackson as weak on crime. Grassley said in his opening statement that there are two types of nominees who have worked criminal cases: “Bill of Rights attorneys who want to protect defendants’ constitutional rights” and “criminal defense lawyers who disagree with our criminal laws.”
“Of course, that’s a very important difference,” Grassley said.
Some Republican senators indicated that they will press Jackson for advocating on behalf of detainees at Guantánamo Bay in private practice after representing them as a public defender.
“I’m a bit troubled by some of the positions you’ve taken and arguments that you’ve made representing people who have committed terrorist acts against the United States and other dangerous criminals,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said.
Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley has raised concerns about Jackson’s record on sentencing in child pornography cases. Hawley said on Twitter last week that there is “an alarming pattern when it comes to Judge Jackson’s treatment of sex offenders, especially those preying on children.”
The White House and Senate Democrats have pushed back on Hawley’s attack, noting that Jackson has the support of law enforcement groups, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police, and dozens of former state attorneys general. They noted she has already been confirmed by the Senate three times.
“In the vast majority of cases involving child sex crimes, the sentences Judge Jackson imposed were consistent with or above what the government or US probation recommended,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week.
“Some have said that the federal sentencing guidelines are too harsh on child sex crimes, especially child pornography,” said Hawley on Monday. “I’ll just be honest. I can’t say that I agree with that.”
There are other matters Republicans may probe.
Last year, Grassley challenged Jackson’s declaration that “presidents are not kings” and suggested she was engaged in a kind of hyperbole.
Senate Republicans have also pushed for Jackson to publicly oppose efforts to expand the court, which activists on the left have called for since they blocked then-President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016 and then expanded, under Trump, the high court’s conservative majority from 5-4 to 6-3. Jackson’s nomination to replace another liberal will not change the ideological balance of the court.
“Nine is a number that works,” said Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee. “We must protect the court.”
Still, even those who may oppose Jackson expect the hearings this week to be less contentious than those in the Trump era, which altered the balance of the court and, in the case of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, centered on allegations of sexual assault.
“Most of us couldn’t go back to our offices during Kavanaugh without getting spit on,” said Graham to his Democratic colleagues. “I hope that doesn’t happen to y’all. I don’t think it will.”
Graham, like other Republicans, criticized Jackson for holding the support of left-wing groups.
“Now we’re facing a choice sponsored by the most radical elements of the Democratic party when it comes to how to be a judge,” Graham said.
Murkowski has said that her previous support of Jackson to be a judge does not signal how she would vote for Jackson to be a justice.
But Collins has praised Jackson’s credentials and experience as “impressive.” The Maine Republican said she would not make her decision on her until after the Judiciary Committee hearings.
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.
CNN’s Joan Biskupic and Tierney Sneed contributed to this report.