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News brief: Ketanji Brown Jackson, Ukrainian refugees, China plane crash

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today U.S. senators may spend 12 hours questioning a Supreme Court nominee.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's a chance for some lawmakers to probe her views while others posture and try for viral videos. In opening remarks yesterday, Jackson pledged to be independent.

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KETANJI BROWN JACKSON: I decide cases from a neutral posture. I evaluate the facts, and I interpret and apply the law to the facts of the case before me without fear or favor.

INSKEEP: That's Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Nominees are often guarded, of course, about how much they say, so this is, to some extent, a game of interpretation. And NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to help us with that. Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are her Democratic supporters casting Judge Jackson?

JOHNSON: Well, first, there's a real focus on the trailblazing nature of this nomination. Chairman Dick Durbin of Illinois pointed out 115 people have sat on the Supreme Court; Judge Jackson would be the first Black woman. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey couldn't contain how happy he was yesterday seeing Judge Jackson, her parents, her husband, her two daughters. All of them except for the daughters seemed to be on the verge of tears at different points. Here's more from Senator Booker.

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CORY BOOKER: It's a sign that we as a country are continuing to rise to our collective cherished, highest ideals. I just feel this sense of overwhelming joy as I see you sitting there, as I see your family sitting behind you.

INSKEEP: So there's the question of her background. There's also the question of her record, which I would imagine that Republicans especially will be probing today. What kind of clues do you find, Carrie, when you look back at her rulings over the years?

JOHNSON: Well, let's start with this - the American Bar Association has found Judge Jackson to be well-qualified, the highest ranking it can give. And in her record, she's ruled both for and against the government in different cases. In maybe her most famous case, she said presidents are not kings. She said former President Trump's White House counsel did have to appear before Congress to testify about possible obstruction of justice. But in another case, she turned back a challenge from environmental groups and allowed the Trump administration to proceed with building parts of that wall along the southwest border. And earlier in her career, Jackson was a public defender, which is an almost unique credential on this Supreme Court, and she worked on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets federal policies for sentencing on crimes.

INSKEEP: Now, that part is interesting because aren't some of the Republican questions about Judge Jackson focused on the matter of sentencing?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri unleashed an argument that Judge Jackson has been too soft on defendants in several child pornography cases. Here's what he said.

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JOSH HAWLEY: What concerns me - and I've been very candid about this - is that in every case, in each of these seven, Judge Jackson handed down a lenient sentence that was below what the federal guidelines recommended and below what prosecutors requested. And so I think there's a lot to talk about there, and I look forward to talking about it.

JOHNSON: Now, Hawley signaled he wants to dive deeper in these cases today. He got some support from Senator Lindsey Graham, who called all of that fair game. But other conservative lawyers say that attack on the judge is misleading. Andrew McCarthy, writing in the National Review, said it was meritless to the point of demagoguery because it doesn't distinguish between defendants who produce child pornography and people who possess and share it. Many legal experts and most federal judges think the penalties for distribution are too harsh, and they tend to sentence the way Judge Jackson did.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks so much. Really appreciate it. We'll be listening to the hearings today and listening for your coverage as well.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Johnson.

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INSKEEP: We have glimpses today of one-quarter of a country on the move.

MARTINEZ: Ukraine's population is a little more than 40 million, and the United Nations says about 10 million have fled their homes. So imagine if the entire Chicago metropolitan area had to flee. Well, it's a few more people than even that. According to the Pentagon, Russia's offensive has largely stalled. Russia's troops have suffered startling numbers of casualties. But artillery and missile strikes on residential areas forced more people to flee.

INSKEEP: NPR's Becky Sullivan is in Ukraine and has been talking with some of those who are internally displaced, meaning they're still in their country but away from home. Becky, welcome.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess you're in Lviv in western Ukraine. Where are people coming from to get where you are?

SULLIVAN: They're coming from all over the country. Many of them are coming from the capital, Kyiv. Many of them are coming from the eastern part of the country, these areas that have been contested for about eight years now. And, of course, they're coming from Mariupol, which is the city that we've heard a lot about on the country's southeast coast, where Russian forces have it totally surrounded - no access to food, electricity, water. And civilian targets like the maternity hospital have been hit and an art school and theater where city officials say civilians were taking shelter. Ukraine said that they will not surrender the city, so the shelling has continued. But a few thousand people are managing to escape there each day.

INSKEEP: But you just mentioned the city is surrounded. How do people get out?

SULLIVAN: Yep. They're coming out through what Ukrainians call green corridors - humanitarian corridors, in other words - basically, these designated routes that are set up to get people out of these places to safety. Each night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reads off the number of people who've been evacuated each day via these corridors. Yesterday was about 8,000 total from all over. The country's got these buses set up to take people out, and of course, people drive out by packing into cars and hoping for the best. Aid groups have a different picture. You know, a representative from the U.N. told us over the weekend that it's been very challenging to negotiate setting up these corridors. Parties can't agree to important details. Roads are very destroyed, and there's obstacles on them and so on. And so aid groups can't reliably get into these places and not Mariupol at all. But thankfully, people are getting out.

INSKEEP: So some of these people do reach western Ukraine. You've been able to speak with some of them. What experiences have you heard about?

SULLIVAN: Well, pretty uniformly, they describe it as totally terrifying. Yesterday I talked to a few folks who've come to Lviv. Of course, that's here in western Ukraine. It's been very safe throughout these four weeks of invasion. One of the people I talked to yesterday, her name is Natalia Kristianuk (ph). She's a 29-year-old woman who left her village on the northeast edge of Kyiv, the Kyiv region, where fighting has been very intense. She said Russian troops came, and they occupied her village. They came to everybody's homes. They went through her phone, she said. They threatened to kill her when they found that she had sent text messages that were very critical of the Russians. So she decided she wanted to leave. Finally, the day came last week when a bus was coming to the village to take people to safety. So she grabbed what she could, mostly clothes for her 3-year-old daughter. But she and her neighbors were walking to the bus, holding white flags, and she said that is when shelling started.

NATALIA KRISTIANUK: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: And what she's saying here is that soldiers told her to hide in a ditch, where she laid for 3 hours, trying to hide her daughter, hoping for the best, watching the rockets fly overhead. Now Natalia and her daughter are here in Lviv. She - they're safe. They might not know where they're sleeping each night, but at least they're alive.

INSKEEP: Soon as you said 3-year-old daughter, you got my heart there, Becky. Oh, gosh. Thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Becky Sullivan in western Ukraine.

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INSKEEP: Some other news now - what's known about a plane carrying 132 people that crashed into a mountain in China?

MARTINEZ: Authorities are trying to figure out what happened and whether anyone survived. This could be the worst aviation disaster in China in two decades.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng is covering this story from Beijing. Hey there, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess we should stress, as always, with plane crashes it takes a while to figure them out.

FENG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: But what's known so far?

FENG: We know it's a domestic flight flying east to the port city of Guangzhou. Of those people, 123 were passengers with nine staff. They were all supposed to land last afternoon, but instead, flight radar data we've seen shows the plane lost contact over China's Guangzhou province, and then it started descending rapidly. In fact, if you look at the data, the plane plummeted 26,000 feet in just 90 seconds or so, which meant it basically fell vertically out of the sky. Then it crashed into the trees below, and it caused a mountain fire. So this was a high-impact collision, and authorities say they have found no survivors so far. There are some stories emerging about the people who were on board. They included children, parents, friends, in one case a fiance who their newly betrothed fears is now dead. The regulators here say that there was one person who did not make the flight, however, because they were missing a digital health certificate they needed to board, and that person must be feeling very lucky today.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Now let's talk about the evidence so far of what happened, granting that it's too early to really say a cause. What is the evidence that you have?

FENG: Authorities say they're still searching for answers. In fact, they're still searching for the transponders, the black boxes on board that should contain data about the flight up to the moment of its impact. Unfortunately, most of the plane literally fell apart from the force of the impact. And if you look at livestreams of the crash site today, there are bits of fuselage strewn across these mountains in southern Guangxi, so these black boxes could have been flung somewhere into the jungle. The plane that crashed is a Boeing 737-800. It was not very old, just under 7 years old. If you remember, last year Boeing paid about $2.5 billion for covering up some glitchy software that caused two crashes on two other planes they made - Boeing 737 MAXs. But this crash does not seem similar to those two previous Boeing accidents, where in both cases the pilot was fighting for control. The data, as I mentioned earlier, shows the plane descended so rapidly and smoothly that it basically hit the ground at a 90-degree angle, perpendicularly like a missile.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And I guess people - I guess authorities will look at that pattern that you described - the sudden plunge, a brief moment where it seemed to begin to recover, right? And then it plunged the rest of the way down.

FENG: Very briefly. And people say that angle is extremely unusual. You basically have to force the plane to go into a nosedive to reach that angle.

INSKEEP: I know that if this were a crash in the United States, there's the National Transportation Safety Board. There are people who are professionals who would show up at the scene, who would investigate this, and there are professionals, of course, to look for survivors and the rest as well. How does it happen in China?

FENG: It is exactly the same. There is an all-out search and rescue and investigation mission right now. People here are really shocked because crashes are rare. The last one here on the mainland was in 2010. Right now the challenge is to figure out what happened. There are aviation consultants who are flying in. Because this was a U.S.-designed plane with French components, it may be an international investigation, but it will take months perhaps to solve.

INSKEEP: Emily, always good to hear from you.

FENG: Thanks.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.