By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate begins consideration on Monday of Ketanji Brown Jackson's nomination to be the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, with Republicans expected to pose tough questions about her professional background and judicial philosophy.
Democratic President Joe Biden last month nominated Jackson, 51, for a lifetime job on America's top judicial body to succeed retiring liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, setting up a confirmation battle in the closely divided Senate.
Jackson on Monday is set to make an opening statement during the first day of her Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, with the panel's 22 members questioning her on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Senate has confirmed Jackson to three federal posts, most recently last year, when Biden nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit after eight years as a federal district judge in Washington.
Her confirmation would not change the ideological balance of the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, including three justices appointed by Republican former President Donald Trump.
But it would let Biden freshen the court's liberal bloc with a justice young enough to serve for decades. Breyer, 83, is the court's oldest member.
Jackson was raised in Miami and attended Harvard Law School, later serving as a Supreme Court clerk for Breyer and representing criminal defendants who could not afford a lawyer.
She is likely to face sharp questioning from Republicans including Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz on issues such as crime and cases she took when representing criminal defendants.
Some senators also could question her on race issues, including whether she should participate in an upcoming case challenging Harvard University's affirmative action admissions policy used to increase the number of Black and Hispanic students on campus. Jackson serves on the university's Board of Overseers and has faced calls to recuse herself from the case.
A Reuters review of 25 racial discrimination cases in which Jackson issued substantive rulings as a federal district judge found that she ruled in favor of plaintiffs in only three of them.
Jackson's nomination fulfils Biden's 2020 campaign promise to name a Black woman to the court, a milestone he called long overdue. If confirmed, she would be the third Black justice, following Clarence Thomas, appointed in 1991 and still serving, and Thurgood Marshall, who retired in 1991 and died in 1993.
The Supreme Court said on Sunday that Thomas was hospitalized in Washington on Friday with an infection, although it added that he was being treated with intravenous antiobiotics and expected to be released in a day or two.
Jackson's nomination has been backed by prominent lawyers from across the ideological spectrum, civil rights groups and law enforcement organizations including the National Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file officers.
Democrats narrowly control the Senate, which has the task of deciding whether to confirm a president's judicial appointments. The Senate is divided 50-50 between the two parties, with Biden's fellow Democrats controlling it because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.
A simple majority vote would be needed for Jackson's confirmation, meaning she would get the job if all Democrats are united behind the nomination regardless of what Republicans do.
The court's conservative majority has shown increased assertiveness, with rulings due in cases that could curb abortion rights and expand gun rights.
The confirmation hearing ends on Thursday with witnesses testifying about Jackson's suitability for the job. The Judiciary Committee would then vote on the nomination in the coming weeks, followed by a final confirmation vote on the Senate floor. Breyer has said he would remain on the court until its current term ends, typically in late June.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham, Scott Malone and Gerry Doyle)