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Sen. Dick Durbin on the 1st day of hearings for SCOTUS nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the fourth time in her life, but it's her first as a nominee to the Supreme Court. She thanked her family, mentors and those who came before her for the opportunity, and included a tribute to Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman appointed to the federal bench, with whom she shares a birthday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KETANJI BROWN JACKSON: Like Judge Motley, I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building - equal justice under law - Are a reality and not just an ideal.

SUMMERS: If confirmed, Jackson would be the first Black woman to serve on the nation's highest court. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin is presiding over the confirmation hearing, and he joins us now. Welcome back to the program, Senator.

DICK DURBIN: Good to be with you.

SUMMERS: All right. Republicans have spent a lot of time today focusing not on Judge Jackson, but on how Democrats have treated Republican nominees in the past. They've been calling it character assassination. Senator, what do you make of that?

DURBIN: Listen; there's a list of grievances about what's going on before us, and we can certainly talk about those and write or rewrite the history. I'm focused on today, and today we have an opportunity to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court with a lifetime appointment and an extraordinary nominee who has been approved by this committee on three separate occasions. She wasn't in the room when these past occurrences happened. She's not - doesn't have any responsibility for that. We can work this out among us as members of the committee and should. But let's try to create an example with the way we treat this nominee that chairs - myself and others in the future - can use as a model.

SUMMERS: To that point, Senator, do you believe that your Republican colleagues will treat Judge Jackson fairly in this process?

DURBIN: Most of them. And, you know, the leadership in the Senate, Republican leadership, said we're going to be respectful and civil, and we're not going to do character assassination. I'll just have to tell you, there are one or two Republican senators who didn't get the message, but that's OK. We're going to press forward. I think when it's all said and done, most people would agree that what happened today was a civilized exchange.

Now, she was at a terrible disadvantage today. She sat at the table. Each senator had 10 minutes. Some used it to praise her. Some used it to attack her. And she had to sit there quietly and absorb all the blows. Tomorrow she gets to respond, and I think it'll be a much better day for the committee.

SUMMERS: So this is the end of Day 1. It is expected to be a four-day confirmation process. I wonder at this point, do you believe that Judge Jackson will get any Republican votes, either on the Judiciary Committee or on the Senate floor?

DURBIN: Yes, I think there's a good chance she will. I'm at least hoping for that. Nobody has looked me in the eye and told me how they're going to vote - on either side, for that matter. So I'm not presuming anything. I thought after the hearing, I'll have a chance to talk to members on both sides and see where they stand.

What I did do is reach out to Republican senators quietly, personally, and say to them, I want you to feel that you've got all the information and all the opportunities to ask her questions that you wish. And we've done that. She has met so far with 45 senators, every member of the Judiciary Committee and many others, and really made herself available to ask questions of all kinds. Some of them have lined her up and said, can you stay for 20 minutes and take a picture with every member of my staff? Some of them didn't treat her quite the same. But the bottom line is, I'm going to work to make this a bipartisan roll call. It's good for the Senate. It'll be good for the Supreme Court.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about something that we heard today from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He expressed some disappointment that Michelle Childs, a Black judge from South Carolina, was not President Biden's nominee. He said that Childs could have gotten Republican support but was the victim of a, quote, "dark money campaign from dark money groups on the left." Do you believe that outside advocacy groups play too much of a role in this process?

DURBIN: No, not as far as I know. I mean, I don't contact these folks. We don't sit down and strategize or plot. I'm playing this totally above board in the committee. And I don't know what happened to Judge Childs. I had a positive impression of her. Had President Biden chosen her, the South Carolina nominee, I would have been happy to sit down and probably support her just as enthusiastically as I do with this judge. But that didn't happen. I don't think it was a big left-wing conspiracy. I think Joe Biden made the decision. He had it narrowed down to three or four people, and he chose Judge Brown.

SUMMERS: Senator Durbin, in the about 30 seconds we have left here, you took note of, as did Judge Jackson herself, the history that she is stepping into as the nominee. She would be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Tell us quickly why that matters so much.

DURBIN: It matters because it really says that America is moving forward, that we recognize as a nation that we need to create opportunity. The point I made - the first meeting of the Supreme Court in 1790 was to a nation of 4 million people and 700,000 Black slaves. Neither women - white or Black women - had an opportunity under the Constitution to vote. How much we've changed for the better - we're giving women the rightful opportunity, in this case to serve on the highest court in the land.

SUMMERS: That's Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin of Illinois. Thanks for being with us.

DURBIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.