Amy Klobuchar Calls Supreme Court Pick Ketanji Brown Jackson the 'Real Deal' — Even as GOP Presses Their Case

The Minnesota Democrat, who sits on the Judiciary Committee now vetting Jackson, tells PEOPLE about participating in the hearings on President Joe Biden’s historic nominee

Supreme Court Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson Meets With Senators On Capitol Hill

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar says "it's always exciting to be involved in a Supreme Court confirmation" — but participating in hearings this week with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has been its own experience altogether.

"This one is special," Klobuchar, 61, tells PEOPLE, acknowledging that Brown, who was nominated by President Joe Biden, is the first Black woman to be considered by the U.S. Senate to serve on the Supreme Court.

"She is opening the doors," Klobuchar says of Jackson, 51, pointing out that of 115 previous and current justices only five are women and only two — both men — are Black. "That just makes every little girl and boy think everything is possible."

For more on Ketanji Brown Jackson, listen below to our daily podcast on PEOPLE Every Day.

"She's someone that can ground the court," Klobuchar adds. "She's the real deal."

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Klobuchar, who is one of 11 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee tasked with reviewing and approving the president's nominees for federal judgeships, spoke with PEOPLE by phone Tuesday about Jackson as well as her Republican colleagues' approach to vetting the nominee.

"One of the things your nomination presents is an opportunity to address a decline in the public's confidence in our court," Klobuchar said to Jackson during her line of questioning at the hearings on Tuesday. "How do you think we can work to maintain the public's confidence in the court? What do you see your role in that?"

Jackson responded by saying that public confidence is "crucial" and that it is "the key to our legitimacy in our democratic system."

She added that she was "honored" to be nominated "because it means so much to so many people."

"I am here standing on the shoulders of generations of Americans who never had anything close to this kind of opportunity," Jackson continued, appearing emotional but composed. "This nomination is significant to a lot of people, and I hope that it will bring confidence, it will help inspire people to understand that our courts are like them, that our judges are like them. Doing the work, being part of our government: I think it's very important."

Klobuchar tells PEOPLE she felt "fortunate" to share that exchange with Jackson.

"She's as tough as nails. You can tell she can handle any question, any mean question, any probing question — she's been able to handle from my colleagues. But at the same time she has this humanity," the senator says. "I loved that moment because she was talking about what she carries on her shoulders and that's the hopes and dreams of people who couldn't attain what she is about to attain [but] that were as qualified."

Supreme Court Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson Meets With Senators On Capitol Hill

Jackson wasn't the only one to become emotional during her testimony. Her surgeon husband, Dr. Patrick Jackson, and their daughters, Talia and Leila Jackson, have been in the audience along with Jackson's parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, and her brother, Ketajh Brown.

During the hearings, the Browns appeared transfixed. Leila looked at her mom with visible pride; and Dr. Jackson was seen wiping tears away.

Not all of the moments were sentimental, however. Some Republicans on the committee asked pointed questions.

Klobuchar believes it is the role of members in the minority to "have an open mind," "be respectful" and "vet" nominees appointed by a president from the opposing party. But she also says senators are not necessarily out of line if they choose to discuss other topics or raise past grievances, which several did on the opening day of hearings.

"People can talk about what they want to talk about in these hearings," Klobuchar says. "You know, it's free speech."

With the slimmest majority possible in the Senate, Democrats could confirm Jackson without any Republican support as long as all 50 are present and vote in favor, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie — a scenario that is unprecedented in seating a Supreme Court justice.

While Democrats, including the president, are hopeful that some in the GOP will support Jackson's confirmation in a full Senate vote, this week's hearings also gave Republicans a chance to air grievances about past confirmation hearings as they pressed Jackson on her judicial and legal record as well as her personal beliefs.

"Everyone can find things they don't like about the past. I don't like in the past the fact that on one hand Republicans held back putting a judge in and then they rammed through a judge right before the election," Klobuchar says, referring to President Barack Obama's derailed nominee Merrick Garland and President Donald Trump's final pick, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, respectively.

"I just don't think this is the moment to re-litigate the past because we have grievances, too," Klobuchar says, adding that the country is facing profound challenges as it emerges, albeit unevenly, from a pandemic and contends with Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

"That means listening respectfully to each other and not re-litigating everything from the past," she says, "because believe me we have stuff we're pretty mad about as well."

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Despite the likelihood of Jackson's confirmation along (or mostly along) party lines, Klobuchar says "you always want to get as many votes as you can."

"I know she's not going to at all back down from trying to answer questions," she adds of Jackson. "She's never been resting on her laurels, and we aren't either."

When she met with Jackson on March 3 for a one-on-one before the hearings, Klobuchar found the judge "very engaging."

"We discussed kids," Klobuchar says. "We talked about what it's like being a mom and having to balance a high-profile job and that was a really great discussion. We talked about normal things you would talk about, but what was different for me with this process was that just it felt really personal … it was really nice."

One thing they did not discuss, she says, was the matching red jackets both wore at Tuesday's hearing.

Says Klobuchar with a laugh: "That was not planned!"

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