In Jackson hearing, Tillis declines to join his repugnant GOP colleagues

Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

At the end of Tuesday night, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) told Supreme Court hopeful Ketanji Brown Jackson that the woman who cleans his office at night was one of the special guests who attended the hearing.

“She said afterwards that it was a great moment for her to be in this room today,” he told Jackson, “but she asked my staff, ‘Why are some people so mean?’”

Durbin said he did not think that the senators on his side of the aisle were mean. Today, however, he started out by saying some of his Republican colleagues were using it as “an opportunity to showcase talking points for the November election.”

North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, thankfully and perhaps surprisingly, was largely not one of them Wednesday.

Tillis opted to switch spots at the hearing with Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and go Wednesday morning. In contrast to Blackburn’s insistence late Tuesday that “critical race theory” was being taught in elementary schools (it isn’t), Tillis opted to ask about recidivism and court packing, two things that were tame compared to his colleagues.

“I look at your philosophy with respect,” Tillis told Jackson during questioning when asking about recidivism. “It’s admirable. I said that the content of your character would be demonstrated this week my opening statement and it has been.”

Instead of focusing on race-based teaching like Blackburn and Ted Cruz (R-TX), religious fervor like Lindsey Graham (R-SC), or QAnon-soaked questions about child sexual abuse sentencing, Tillis sounded level-headed even when asking about cases that his colleagues brought up the day before.

“Do I read that statement to say that you felt, given the circumstances of the time, [the incarcerated] should all be released?” he asked Jackson about U.S. v. Wiggins, a case Jackson heard about early releases and COVID. In a similar question about the same case, Blackburn accused Jackson of advocating that “each and every criminal defendant in D.C. Corrections custody should be released.”

Jackson still noted that he was not, in fact, reading the statement correctly. In the case he referenced, the incarcerated person was not granted compassionate release.

“Senator, if you read two more sentences down that is precisely what I focus on,” Brown responded. “This is a case, United States v. Wiggins, where I was setting up my analysis as to why I would not be releasing Mr. Wiggins.”

Hopefully the senator’s line of question signals that he, unlike some of his colleagues, is taking the time to judge Jackson for her character and her record instead of using her nomination to rile up his base. After all, that’s the way these hearings used to work, when hearings were more about cases and less about scoring points with FOX News.

It’s also easy to seem level-headed compared to the shameful way his colleagues questioned Jackson yesterday. Graham interrupted her multiple times to make his points and asked Jackson to rate her faith on a scale of 1-10. Cruz blew up photos of the book Antiracist Baby and asked, point blank, “Do you agree with this book being taught with kids that babies are racist?”

But Tillis also appeared to stand up for his GOP colleagues. “I thought it was interesting that they were ridiculing some of my colleagues on this side of the aisle for bringing up the behavior of past Supreme Court hearings,” Tillis said. “This is really the appropriate venue to do it.”

Tillis cited the way Democrats questioned Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Justice Amy Coney Barrett. But that comparison was weak: Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford. Barrett was rated “unqualified” by the American Bar Association and had her hearing rushed through by former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had previously delayed a judiciary hearing for Merrick Garland for almost an entire year.

Maybe Thom Tillis wants to position himself as a reasonable Republican, despite his mostly uncritical support of Trump during his presidential term. It’s possible that the January 6 insurrection and the Big Lie have changed his viewpoint. It’s also possible that he knows he can redeem the party by simply not bringing baseless claims and far right extremism to the senate floor.