How to get on the Supreme Court? Smile a lot, speak a little
WASHINGTON (AP) — Keep a smile on your face. Don’t talk too much. Avoid the news media.
It’s advice Supreme Court nominees have heard for decades from the guides that presidents select to help steer candidates through the Senate confirmation process.
Federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden’s pick for the court, likely has been getting similar guidance from her helper, former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, for the one-on-one meetings she’s been having with senators and for her confirmation hearing that opens Monday.
“Stay out of the way, be on time and keep your mouth shut,” is what Republican Tom Korologos says he has told the hundreds of nominees for executive branch and judicial positions, including the Supreme Court, that he has shepherded along during decades in and out of the federal government.
“It’s an arcane art to teach a brilliant Bork, a brilliant Scalia and a brilliant Rehnquist how to behave in a confirmation hearing when you’re up before a bunch of senators, some of whom may not like you,” Korologos said in an interview.
Because of the high stakes involved — a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court, sometimes with the chance to shape its ideological direction — modern presidents have put together teams of advisers to help smooth a nominee’s path through a grueling, time-consuming process that also has become increasingly contentious.
The job of a guide often goes to an experienced Washington hand and combines many roles into one: coach, confidant, liaison to Capitol Hill and to the administration, traffic cop and strategist with the singular goal of helping the nominee win confirmation. But that isn’t always a given, as history has shown.
Korologos shepherded the late Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia to confirmation. But he suffered defeat with the late federal judge Robert Bork, whom the Senate rejected in 1987 for a seat on the high court.
In the case of Jackson, Biden called on Jones to help guide the 51-year-old federal appeals court judge through the process. If confirmed by the Senate, Jackson will become the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court in its more than 232-year history.
White House counsel Dana Remus said Jones, himself a lawyer, was the “perfect choice” because of the relationships he developed in both parties during a short Senate stint that ended in 2021 after he lost a bid to be elected to a full Senate term.
“He is much beloved by R’s and D’s, with good reason,” Remus told The Associated Press. “He’s such a warm, engaging person.”
Jones travels from Senate office to Senate office with Jackson and a White House entourage, filling her in on what to expect from each senator and often joining the small talk before and after meetings. She has met with 44 senators of both parties, including all 22 Senate Judiciary Committee members, in the three weeks since Biden announced her as his pick.
“These have been engaging and respectful discussions that showcase her extraordinary qualifications, experience, intellect, and character,” Jones said Thursday in a statement.
Stephanie Cutter, a veteran Democratic strategist who guided Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said Supreme Court nominees should decline interview requests to avoid saying anything that could be taken out of context and become so problematic that it jeopardizes the nomination.
A nominee’s judicial opinions, other writings and speeches provides their opponents with plenty of fodder to chew over, she said.
“You don’t want to add anything new to it,” Cutter said during a recent Politico podcast.
Jackson wrote nearly 600 opinions as a federal trial and appellate court judge. Her nominee questionnaire tops out at more than 2,000 pages and the Judiciary Committee has access to more than 12,000 pages from the Sentencing Commission, where she once served.
She has been on a charm offensive since Biden announced her on Feb. 25, meeting individually with as many of the 100 senators as possible before the hearing, which will consume most of next week. She will spend at least two days answering questions from Judiciary Committee members before the full Senate votes on her nomination.
“That’s something they need to be prepared for before they just walk into it,” said Dan Coats, a Republican former U.S. senator from Indiana who helped guide Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers until she withdrew after encountering bipartisan opposition. President George W. Bush then nominated judge Samuel Alito, and Coats helped usher him to confirmation.
Coats said his team’s motto was “three months of hell, lifetime job” — a reminder that “it’s going to be over in three months and then nobody’s going to mess with you for the rest of your life.”
The timetable has narrowed considerably, though, since Alito’s confirmation in January 2006.
Republicans rushed Amy Coney Barrett, the court’s newest justice, through the process in about a month after her nomination by President Donald Trump. She joined the court just before the November 2020 election, which Trump lost.
Democrats are eyeing an equally swift process for Jackson, hoping she can be confirmed by mid-April to succeed retiring Justice Stephen Breyer. White House officials working on her nomination declined to discuss their process in any detail.
Coats said his team met at the White House every morning to review the list of senators the nominee was scheduled to see that day and go over their known concerns, anticipate questions and hash out answers. The team met again afterward to discuss how things went.
He said he counseled Alito to “keep a smile on your face.”
“It was the best unpaid job I ever had,” Coats said of his stint as a guide.
Korologos said he always advised nominees to “have the passion and enthusiasm of a commencement address, inspiring and lofty” in their answers, but at the same time “say nothing.”
He encouraged them to be deferential to senators and to follow one of his most important pieces of advice, something he calls the “80-20 rule.”
In Korologos’ view, a nominee is “winning” if senators on the committee are doing 80% of the talking. A 60-40 ratio means the nominee is “arguing” and is “in trouble.”
At 50-50, it’s over. They’ve “blown it,” Korologos said.