After a flurry of Trump judicial appointments, President Joe Biden's first nominees to the federal courts showcased their striking diversity in Senate testimony Wednesday, even as Republicans grilled the candidates over the role of race in the judicial system, religious liberty and expanding the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, whom Biden nominated to replace Merrick Garland on the high-profile D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals when he picked Garland for attorney general, was a main focus of GOP questions given her status as a leading contender if there's a high court vacancy.
Biden has said he would appoint the first African American woman to the Supreme Court at his first opportunity. Jackson is one of just 35 active Black female federal judges currently serving, according to the Federal Judicial Center. Only four are circuit court judges.
Former President Barack Obama nominated Jackson, a former federal public defender and a former vice chair and commissioner on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, to the federal District Court for D.C. in 2012. She formerly clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer, whom many liberals have been calling for to retire.
Other nominees who testified Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee included Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, who has been nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and Magistrate Judge Zahid N. Quraishi, who was nominated to the District Court for New Jersey. If confirmed, Quraishi would be the first Muslim American federal judge.
Partisan divisions were on display when committee Republicans asked their questions.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked Jackson and Jackson-Akiwumi, who are both Black, about their views on the role of race in the judicial system.
"When I get my cases, I'm looking at the arguments, the facts and the law. I'm methodically and intentionally setting aside personal views, any other inappropriate considerations," Jackson said. "I would think that race would be the kind of thing that would be inappropriate to inject in an evaluation of a case."
However, she added, "I've experienced life in, perhaps, a different way than some of my colleagues because of who I am. And that might be valuable. I hope it would be valuable if I was confirmed to the circuit court.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked Jackson-Akiwumi about a sentencing memo she wrote as a public defender and if she thought that mandatory minimums were racist.
"Theere has been research by the Sentencing Commission and other agencies in our government that have shown the racial impact of mandatory minimum sentences," she said. "It's an issue that this body, in this very committee has considered."
Several Republican senators brought up the advocacy group Demand Justice, which has supported Jackson's nomination and has called for expanding the Supreme Court.
"Demand Justice claims that the Supreme Court is broken," Cornyn said. "Do you think the Supreme Court is broken?"
"Senator, I've never said anything about the Supreme Court being broken," Jackson said in response. "Again, I'm not going to comment on, the structure, the size, the functioning even, of the Supreme Court," she said.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., also brought up Demand Justice, calling the group a "dark money liberal group" and tied its support for her to her 2019 ruling that former White House counsel Donald McGahn must testify before the House Judiciary Committee.
In her response to Tillis, Jackson said that as a federal judge she has a duty to be independent.
"I know very well what my obligations are, what my duties are," she said. "Not to rule with partisan advantage in mind. Not to tailor or craft my decisions in order to try to gain influence or do anything on the sort.”
Hawley asked Jackson about her time serving on the board of Montrose Christian School, a Maryland school that closed in 2013, and asked if her time there meant she believes in religious liberty. Hawley said that the board's statement of faith included language opposing abortion and LGBTQ rights, noting that Justice Amy Coney Barrett was criticized for being on the board of a school with similar beliefs.
Jackson called religious liberty a foundational tenet of our government and that the Supreme Court has made clear that government can't infringe on religious rights.
"Those ideas, that concept comes from my duty to observe Supreme Court precedent, to follow its tenets, not from any personal views that I might have and any personal views about religion would never into my service as a judge," she said. "I will also say that I've served on many boards, and that I don't necessarily agree with all of the statements of any-- of all of the things that those words might have in their materials," she added.
In a personal moment, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., asked Jackson what it meant to be nominated to a circuit court judgeship.
"It is the beauty and the majesty of this country, that someone who comes from a background like mine could find herself in this position," she answered. "And so I'm just enormously grateful to have this opportunity to be a part of the law in this way, and I'm truly thankful for the president giving me the honor of this nomination."
ABC News' Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.