Supreme Court confirmation hearings were first televised, gavel-to-gavel, when Sandra Day O’Connor appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1981.
The country’s first woman justice, nominated by President Ronald Reagan, made deft use of the forum to introduce herself to the nation and eventually to win confirmation by a 99-0 vote.
Since then, audiences have seen other historic moments, dramatic flashpoints and instances of levity. As the Senate begins its hearings for President Joe Biden’s choice of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who would be the first Black woman justice, here are 10 of the many episodes that have stood out over the past four decades.
Sandra Day O’Connor, 1981
She emphasized at the outset her experience as a state court judge in Arizona and her devotion to family. “By way of preamble,” she said as she began introducing her family, “I would note that … I have performed some marriage ceremonies in my capacity as judge.” She then read from the form she used describing marriage as “the foundation of the family, mankind’s basic unit of society, the hope of the world and strength of the country.” O’Connor was a former state senator and experienced politician who nimbly handled queries about the law and her life. The Senate confirmed her without any dissent.
Robert Bork, 1987
This nominee of Reagan with a deeply conservative record faced a Democratic Senate, and in particular, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy set much of the tone when he dramatically claimed of the then-President’s plan to elevate the US appellate court judge: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, Blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids.”
At the hearings, Bork’s right-wing ideology, rather than his intelligence and experience, remained the focus. When asked why he wanted to be a justice, he memorably stressed the “intellectual feast” of it all: “I have spent my life in the intellectual pursuits in the law. And since I’ve been a judge, I particularly like the courtroom. I like the courtroom as an advocate and I like the courtroom as a judge. … (T)hat’s of course the Court that has the most interesting cases and issues, and I think it would be an intellectual feast just to be there and to read the briefs and discuss things with counsel and discuss things with my colleagues.”
Bork was defeated 58-42.
Clarence Thomas, 1991
He was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to succeed the first Black justice, Thurgood Marshall, who was retiring.
Thomas, also African American, underwent two sets of hearings, the first devoted to his substantive record, the second following the sexual harassment accusations of law professor Anita Hill, a former Thomas employee. He categorically denied the charges, declaring to the committee, chaired by then-Sen. Joe Biden, “This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint as a Black American, as far as I am concerned, it’s a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”
The Senate confirmed him 52-48, which at that point was the closest Supreme Court confirmation vote in more than a century.
John Roberts, 2005
President George W. Bush nominated him to be chief justice upon the death of William Rehnquist, and Roberts’ balls-and-strikes metaphor continues to be evoked by judicial candidates today: “Judges are like umpires,” Roberts told senators. “Umpires don’t make the rules, they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules, but it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire.”
Roberts was confirmed for chief justice by a 78-22 vote.
Samuel Alito, 2006
Biden remained an active Senate Judiciary Committee questioner even after he passed on the committee chairmanship, and he brought in a prop for an exchange with Alito. The then-senator was exploring the nominee’s connection to a Princeton alumni group reputed to oppose the admission of women and minorities. Biden first referred to Alito’s Italian-American background and his own Irish Catholic roots.
“I read your opening statement again, where you said that, ‘A generation earlier I think that somebody from my background probably would not have felt fully comfortable at a college like Princeton.’ … That’s how I felt,” said Biden, who went to the University of Delaware for college. Biden then produced a Princeton cap and put it on. “I can wear this hat proudly today,” he said, because the university improved its record of women and minority admissions. Alito told senators he could not recall participating in the controversial group.
The Senate confirmed him 58-42.
Sonia Sotomayor, 2009
The child of Puerto Rican parents was nominated by President Barack Obama as the first Hispanic justice. She drew some controversy for a remark she often made as she spoke to women’s legal groups, that “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Some Republicans contended the comment was racist and it began to take on a life of its own. At her hearings, Sotomayor said she wanted to make clear that she was simply trying to inspire Latinas to believe that their life experiences would enrich the legal system. “I want to state upfront and unequivocally and without doubt, I do not believe any ethnic, racial, or gender group has an advantage in sound judging.”
She was confirmed 68-31.
Elena Kagan, 2010
Obama’s second nominee produced one of the lighter memorable exchanges as she was questioned by Sen. Lindsey Graham. The South Carolina Republican began asking her about a failed al Qaeda bomb plot on Christmas Day in 2009. Kagan was wary about where he was heading with his questioning about the man apprehended.
“No,” Graham said, “I just asked you where you were on Christmas.” She rejoined, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” Appreciating the levity, Graham said, “Great answer.”
The Senate approved Kagan 63-37.
Neil Gorsuch, 2017
President Donald Trump’s first choice for the high court had a record from more than a decade as a US appellate court judge based in Denver, but one case was particularly targeted. It involved a trucker whose rig had broken down in sub-zero temperatures and who, against company rules, unhitched it and drove away to warm up awhile. When the case came before him, Gorsuch interpreted federal law to say the trucker who was fired was not covered by the usual statutory labor protections.
Then-Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, drilled down on the case, identifying with the trucker and describing his plight as “absurd.” Gorsuch said his decision was limited by his interpretation of the law at issue. When pressed by Franken about what he would have done if he had been a trucker, the judge said: “Oh, Senator, I do not know what I would have done if I were in his shoes, and I do not blame him at all for a moment for doing what he did. I empathize with him entirely.”
The Senate confirmed Gorsuch 54-45.
Brett Kavanaugh, 2018
This Trump nominee, like Thomas, had two sets of hearings, the second prompted by a sexual assault claim raised by psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford, dating to their teenage years living in the Washington, DC, suburbs.
Kavanaugh categorically denied the claim and told the committee, “This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups. This is a circus. The consequences will extend long past my nomination. The consequences will be with us for decades. This grotesque and coordinated character assassination will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from serving our country. And as we all know, in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around. I am an optimistic guy, I always try to be on the sunrise side of the mountain, to be optimistic about the day that is coming, but today I have to say that I fear for the future.”
The Senate confirmed him 50-48.
Amy Coney Barrett, 2020
Graham chaired the Judiciary Committee hearings for Trump’s third nominee and declared at the outset, “This is the first time in American history that we’ve nominated a woman who’s unashamedly pro-life and embraces her faith without apology.”
Barrett, a former Notre Dame law professor, had been vocal regarding her Catholic faith and opposition to abortion rights. In her own testimony, Barrett said she had “no agenda” regarding the reversal of the Supreme Court’s abortion rights precedent dating to the 1973 Roe v. Wade. Barrett testified without notes and, at the urging of Sen. John Cornyn, held up the blank notepad that was on the desk before her. “That’s impressive,” the Texas Republican said.
The Senate confirmed her 52-48.