As Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson fielded tough questions during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, a discerning group was watching and listening – speech and debate students across the country.
They knew that Jackson, the first Black woman nominated to the nation's highest court, credits part of her success in life and the law to her speech and debate team training decades ago in Florida at Miami Palmetto Senior High School.
Amid the Senate Judiciary Committee's expected Monday decision to send Jackson's nomination to the full Senate for final consideration, the students offered rave reviews to the way the judge handled earlier nomination hearing questions about her sentencings in child pornography cases, how to define a woman, and critical race theory.
"I think she came out unscathed, and inspired people who were really listening to what she had to say," said Cameron Kettles, 18, a top debater and senior at the Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, a Dallas suburb.
She cited Jackson's repeated explanation of the federal sentencing guidelines and many other factors a judge weighs before imposing criminal sentences. Jackson recited them again and again when Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Josh Hawley, R-Mo.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; and Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; argued the punishments she'd meted out had been too lenient.
"It didn't seem like they cared what she wanted to say," Kettles said. "The only thing you can do in that situation is sticking with what you have said. It was effective."
Alanalee Hughes, 16, is a junior at Walter Panas High School, part of the Lakeland School District, roughly 47 miles north of New York City. She agreed with Jackson's tactics.
"The way we've been taught to handle something like that is to bring it back to the point we're trying to make, and then clarify it," Hughes said.
Miles Wang, 17, a senior and communications major at the A.W. Dreyfoos School of Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida, applauded Jackson's suggestion that consulting a biologist might be in order when Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., asked how the judge would define a woman.
"She tried to bring it back to what was pertinent to the matter at hand, her judicial qualifications," Wang said.
"It would be very easy to entrap yourself if you gave an actual answer to a question like that," Hughes added.
Each of the students stressed an intangible: Jackson's performance under fire.
"Although there were very subtle signs that she probably felt frustrated, she didn't really show it," Wang said. "She did very well in balancing being engaging and being logical and reasoned in her answers."
The students spoke from years of debating experience.
Kettles said she started in third grade. Five years later, she debated the pros and cons of plea bargains in criminal courts. She was suprised to learn Jackson wrote her Harvard University undergraduate thesis on that subject. Kettles is scheduled to join Harvard's class of 2026 in late summer.
"Her story felt in some ways similar to me," Kettles said.
Hughes has been debating for three years. The Senate committee's protocol, in which an equally divided group of senators from the two major political parties questioned Jackson, doesn't mirror speech and debate formats. However, Hughes said cross-examinations in tournaments often involve questions "to try to throw you off."
Wang's debating start came in seventh grade, and he has competed in multiple international competitions for U.S. teams. He's now weighing college plans that feature acceptances from Harvard and Princeton.
"I thought (debating) would be good training for any field I decide to pursue," including a possible combination of government and artificial intelligence, he said.
Jackson had similar thoughts.
Preaching the virtue of hard work during a 2020 speech to the Black Law Students Association, she said becoming a nationally ranked orator who delivered original speeches meant "that while other kids were hanging out late going to parties, I was either writing or rehearsing my speech, or sleeping ahead of a 5 a.m. Saturday morning tournament wake-up call."
"And that kind of self-discipline and sacrifice has carried through at every stage thereafter, which, if I’m being honest, has made me kind of boring, but has also allowed me to have opportunities that my grandparents could not have even dreamed about," Jackson said.
The school teams that Jackson, Wang, and Kettles joined vie in local, state and national competitions, including tournaments of the National Speech & Debate Association. Founded in 1925, the NSDA website says the organization has 2,796 member high schools, 442 middle schools and 151,682 student competitors.
Hughes competes in tournaments of the New York City affiliate of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues. The organization boasts nearly 11,000 students, primarily competitors of color, in leagues from 22 cities.
Jackson's life story "is very powerful for our students," said Amisha Mody Mehta, the co-executive director of the New York City league.
Although the students who assessed Jackson's nomination hearing performance strove for neutrality, they said they could not help but view her as a role model.
Hughes said Jackson was not only the first Black woman on the verge of joining the Supreme Court, but a "very highly qualified candidate."
"It really was very inspiring to see her kick ass out there," Wang .
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson wows student debaters