Ketanji Brown Jackson — President Joe Biden’s first nomination to the Supreme Court and the nation’s first Black female nominee — has faced repeated questioning from Republican senators during her confirmation hearing about her record when it came to sentencing sex crimes, particularly sex crimes against children.
“You also have a consistent pattern of giving child porn offenders lighter sentences,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) during Monday’s opening statements. “And you have stated publicly that it is a mistake to assume that child pornography offenders are pedophiles.”
At issue is Jackson’s time on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, from 2010 to 2014, where she was part of a body that issued federal sentencing recommendations, and as a district court judge, from 2013 to last year, where she sentenced offenders herself.
The accusations that she was remarkably lenient toward child sex offenders, first leveled on social media after her nomination and sometimes shouted at her through three days of questioning, rely on misinterpretations of and abjectly false claims about her record — and subtly gesture toward an old disinformation tactic.
Jackson has sentenced offenders in more than 100 cases in her career. According to an Associated Press fact check, “in most of the child pornography cases where she imposed lighter sentences than federal guidelines suggested, prosecutors or others representing the Justice Department generally argued for sentences that were lighter than those recommended by federal guidelines.”
Experts say the attempt to tie a political opponent — or, in this case, a political opponent’s judicial nominee — to claims of child predation isn’t new. It recalls old conspiracy theories of blood libel myths that propelled pogroms against Jews in medieval Europe to more recent moral panics about hiring queer teachers or allowing same-sex adoption.
And in today’s political context, references to dangerous elites who prey on children or enable child abuse also evoke — whether intentionally or not — the QAnon conspiracy theory. That decentralized ideology posits that many people in power assault, kill and even eat children. Such a belief motivated a man to bring a gun to a pizza parlor that he believed was trafficking children, in an incident known as Pizzagate.
“Centering child safety is a common narrative thread throughout misinformation narratives,” Rachel E. Moran, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington who has researched moral panic around child sex trafficking, told Grid in an email. “It allows misinformation spreaders to speak from a point of moral authority, painting anyone who questions their information as the bad guy.”
Polls show that at least 15 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republican voters, believe some portion of the mythology that motivated Pizzagate. (Notably, Jackson was the district judge who sentenced the gunman in that case to four years in prison.)
“There’s also an acute understanding that narratives around child safety are a dog whistle to online communities who believe in misinformation around child safety and trafficking associated with Pizzagate and QAnon,” wrote Moran.
The criticisms of Jackson’s handling of sex abuse cases are unfounded
In the days leading up to Jackson’s hearings, it was clear that her record on sentencing would be part of the conversation. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) posted a 17-tweet thread criticizing her work for the U.S. Sentencing Commission and her record as a federal judge.
“I’ve noticed an alarming pattern when it comes to Judge Jackson’s treatment of sex offenders, especially those preying on children,” Hawley wrote on March 16. “Judge Jackson has a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes, both as a judge and as a policymaker.”
In that thread, and then again throughout the hearings, Republican senators pressed her repeatedly on this topic. They misrepresented her record — legal experts say that Jackson’s sentencing record is in line with most federal judges — and often took past statements out of context, in some cases attributing witnesses’ statements to her.
On Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who voted for Jackson’s confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last year, repeatedly interrupted Jackson as she responded to his questions.
“You don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s a horrible thing,” he said of the distribution of child abuse imagery. “I think you’re doing it wrong, and every judge who does what you’re doing is making it easier for the children to be exploited.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) accused Jackson of being unusually lenient “in 100 percent of the cases” involving “people with vile crimes.”
In fact, Jackson’s sentencing record “looks pretty mainstream,” according to Doug Berman, a law professor at the Ohio State University who specializes in sentencing law and policy.
Some lawmakers, including Hawley, also alleged that Jackson “advocated for drastic change in how the law treats sex offenders by eliminating the existing mandatory minimum sentences for child porn” while on the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
That commission is bipartisan. One co-signer of the report, Dabney L. Friedrich, was later nominated to the federal bench by Donald Trump; every Senate Republican voted to confirm her. The body’s recommendation in 2012 to change some mandatory minimum sentences for the possession of child sexual abuse imagery was unanimous.
Nonetheless, the hearings ended with a highly unusual move, one that could delay the final confirmation vote. As described by Dahlia Lithwick of Slate: “10 Republicans [signed] a letter demanding confidential presentencing reports so they could better assess whether a respected federal judge was someone who is an enabler of child pornography.”
Even outside of the hearing room, public figures attempted to tie potential votes for Jackson’s confirmation to these allegations.
“Can Joe Manchin explain to West Virginians why he’s supporting this pedophile apologist?” Donald Trump Jr. wrote on Twitter.
Playing into — and perpetuating — age-old fears
Attempting to paint Jackson — and, by extension, those who vote for her confirmation — as enabling of heinous sex crimes is an old, and effective, political tactic.
“The legacy of that is old, old, old,” said Gillian Branstetter, press secretary for the National Women’s Law Center, which has endorsed Jackson. Myths of secret and powerful child predators are often leveraged against marginalized communities, experts say.
For centuries in Europe, for example, false claims that Jews were kidnapping and drinking the blood of children fueled violent antisemitic rampages.
Branstetter also rattled off a list of 20th-century examples, from pushback against women entering the workplace, to Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” ad campaign of the 1970s, to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
And it takes on new, stronger resonance in a political moment when so many Americans have embraced some aspects of the QAnon conspiracy theory. One avenue by which many people entered that movement was through #SaveTheChildren protests, which purported to raise awareness about child sex trafficking.
“Even without naming the conspiracy theory itself or giving a full-throated endorsement to its most vile aspects, you can speak to that fringe by portraying your political enemies as dangerous to children,” said Branstetter.
While there are some professed supporters of the QAnon ideology in Congress — and at least several dozen more seeking office this year — the most vocal questioners at Jackson’s hearings have not outwardly aligned themselves with the movement. But their statements have gotten traction in QAnon online communities, said Moran, the University of Washington scholar.
In general, this myth is an effective political argument because it sets up a clear dichotomy between the good guys and the bad guys, she added.
“If you center your argument around keeping children safe, anything you advocate for is characterized as morally good, and any attempts to argue against you are morally wrong,” wrote Moran. “It’s an incredibly flexible and powerful narrative tool to silence critics and elevate yourself.”
Jackson’s nomination is just the latest high-profile example of how this myth is weaponized for political ends. It makes room for culture wars to come, in what Don Moynihan, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, described as the “mainstreaming of QAnon ideas and language in our politics.”
This myth has also been leveraged in a spate of bills regarding queer and transgender young people, including the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, which restricts how schools can teach about gender and sexuality, and a recent Texas law that charges families with child abuse for accessing certain medical care for transgender minors.
In both of those examples, opponents of the legislation were referred to as “groomers” — a reference to predators who subtly, and over time, prepare children for abuse. That language has also been used in other political fights over school curricula, such as pushes to ban the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools.
“Terms like ‘groomers’ are being used interchangeably to describe actual child sex abuse and (mostly) exposing kids to ideas about historically marginalized groups,” Moynihan wrote in a Twitter thread.
In the meantime, Moynihan noted, opponents of Jackson’s nomination have achieved one victory: “to create an association between Brown and this broader trope. And in some immediate sense, this worked.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this story.