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ABA plays key role in Supreme Court confirmation hearings

As the legal community focused on the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary was busily at work contributing to the process.

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee for three days.

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee for three days.

The Standing Committee has conducted independent, nonpartisan and comprehensive evaluations of the professional qualifications of nominees to the federal bench since 1953. It is made up of 18 lawyers who come from every federal circuit in the United States and law firms that range from a small local firm to a large international firm. Depending on the workload, each of these lawyers can spend between 400 and 800 hours per year, volunteering their time, to conduct nonpartisan peer reviews of the professional qualifications of all Article III nominees to the Supreme Court of the United States, United States circuit courts of appeals and United States district courts, as well as the Court of International Trade and the Article IV territorial district courts.

The Standing Committee does not propose, endorse or recommend nominees. Its sole function is to evaluate a nominee’s integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament, and then to rate the nominee either “Well Qualified,” “Qualified” or “Not Qualified.” It does not base its rating on or seek to express any view regarding a nominee’s ideology or political views.

In the past five years, the Standing Committee’s workload has been substantial. They have evaluated 403 federal judicial nominees. Jackson’s is the fourth Supreme Court nominee evaluation in the past five years and the 26th since the ABA started evaluating nominees nearly 70 years ago.

President Joe Biden announced his nomination of Jackson to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court on Feb. 25. The Standing Committee began its evaluation that day and continued working for the next several weeks, completing its evaluation on March 18.

Representatives of the Standing Committee testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the ABA’s evaluation of Jackson on March 24. The committee, which rated Jackson “Well Qualified,” its highest rating, was represented by its chair, retired Judge Ann Claire Williams of Chicago, and members D. Jean Veta of Washington, D.C., and Joseph M. Drayton of New York City, who were the Standing Committee’s lead evaluators.

During the ABA testimony, Williams explained to the Senate committee that the ABA does not “recommend or endorse any nominee.” She also noted the importance of confidentiality in the process.

For the evaluation of Jackson, the committee invited input from 1,990 judges and 865 lawyers and other professionals. Three independent reading groups made up of more than 50 law professors and legal experts studied Jackson’s writings.

More than 250 judges, attorneys and academics of all political persuasions and across every aspect of Jackson’s professional career, responded and consistently used the words “brilliant,” “thoughtful,” “thorough,” “beyond reproach,” “fair,” “respectful” and “eminently qualified.”

Some peer comments offered confidentially about Jackson included: “She is off-the-charts in terms of her integrity and judicial temperament” and “She is one of the brightest legal minds in the country with a well-rounded set of experiences in the legal system and judiciary.”

The three diverse reading groups that spent hundreds of hours going through Jackson’s writings all found her to demonstrate the highest level of legal scholarship. One reading group member said that Jackson “has that wonderful combination of high intelligence and common sense. She thinks analytically and is a clear and persuasive writer. She can both craft an exceptionally intricate opinion and present it in a way that lawyers and nonlawyers alike can understand.”

During her eight years as a district court judge, the Standing Committee determined that only 10 of Jackson’s 578 opinions, dispositive orders or orders affecting injunctive relief decisions were reversed by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in whole or in part. One of those reversals was itself reversed by the Supreme Court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on moving Jackson’s nomination forward on April 4.

The ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary takes on the task of evaluating the qualifications of federal judicial nominees because of the importance of the judges’ role and the lifetime appointments they receive. Public trust in judges is critical if the judiciary is to retain its independence. To maintain that trust, judges must be qualified and able to uphold the standards to which society holds them.

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