Kavanaugh Hearings Erupt into Rancor as He Promises Impartiality

An aide holds a sign during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, U.S. Supreme Court associate justice nominee for U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. If confirmed, Kavanaugh would fortify the high court's conservative majority, and spotlight the rightward march of the federal judiciary under Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing opened Sept. 4 with rancor and protests, as Republicans rejected Democratic calls for a delay and for access to hundreds of thousands of pages of records from his work in a Republican White House.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut called the process for considering Kavanaugh’s nomination a “charade and a mockery of our norms,” while Republican John Cornyn of Texas accused Democrats of trying to impose “mob rule.“

Republicans were repeatedly interrupted by audience protesters, including one woman who called the hearing “a travesty of justice” and another who shouted that she had to leave Missouri to get an abortion. More than 20 protesters were removed from the hearing room by Capitol police officers.

Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s pick to succeed the now-retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in all likelihood would shift the court significantly to the right. As a U.S. appeals court judge in Washington since 2006, Kavanaugh struck down federal regulations, backed gun freedoms and questioned abortion rights.

When he delivers his opening statement later Aept. 4, Kavanaugh will promise to be a “neutral and impartial arbiter,” according to excerpts released as the Senate Judiciary Committee began four days of confirmation hearings.

“A good judge must be an umpire—a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy,” Kavanaugh will say, according to excerpts provided by the White House. “I am not a pro-plaintiff or pro-defendant judge. I am not a pro-prosecution or pro-defense judge. I am a pro-law judge.“

Democrats haven’t been able to undercut Kavanaugh’s status as a heavy favorite to win confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate.

All Republicans on the panel are publicly backing Kavanaugh or leaning that way, and top GOP lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee moved swiftly to bolster his case and start shielding him from questions he’ll face on abortion, gun control, presidential power and other issues.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said Kavanaugh is “one of the most qualified nominees, if not the most qualified nominee, I have seen.”

Ginsburg and Kagan

Grassley said senators shouldn’t expect Kavanaugh to discuss how he’ll rule on future cases, including efforts to undercut the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion-rights decision. He suggested that previous high court nominees, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, declined to get into specifics at their confirmation hearings. “The application of Roe to future cases, and even its continued validity, are issues likely to come before the court in the future,” Grassley said. “Senators were satisfied with these answers on precedent. They should be satisfied if Judge Kavanaugh answers similarly.”

Kavanaugh could give the court a fifth vote to overturn, or at least trim back, the constitutional right to abortion access. Trump promised during the campaign to appoint “pro-life” justices who would vote to overturn Roe, and Democrats say Kavanaugh appears to fulfill that vow.

“The impact of overturning Roe is much broader than a woman’s right to choose,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said Tuesday. “It’s about protecting the most personal decisions we all make from government intrusion.“

Executive Power

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said Trump may have chosen Kavanaugh because of the judge’s “expansive view of executive power” and his call for Congress to shield the president from criminal and civil investigations while in office.

“I find it difficult to imagine that your views on this subject escaped the attention of President Trump, who seems increasingly fixated on his own ballooning legal jeopardy,” Leahy said.

Feinstein said Kavanaugh was more pro-gun than deceased Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision that protected individual gun rights for the first time. “Your reasoning is far outside the mainstream of legal thought,” Feinstein said.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah defended Kavanaugh, saying the Supreme Court had adopted the judge’s view of the law 13 times.

“Judge Kavanaugh is no ideologue,” Hatch said. “He is no extremist.“

Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said Kavanaugh would reinforce the Supreme Court’s conservative tilt on business and politically charged cases. He said the court under Chief Justice John Roberts had sided with “big Republican interests” in 73 cases without any support from Democratic-appointed justices.

“In 73 partisan decisions where there’s a big Republican interest at stake, the big Republican interest wins,” Whitehouse said. “Every damned time.“

Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska countered that judges shouldn’t be policy makers. Senators should assess only whether he can “take his policy views and his political preferences and put them in a box marked ‘irrelevant,’” Sasse said.

Members of the committee spent more than an hour sparring over the release of Kavanaugh’s record from his time in President George W. Bush’s White House. Democrats said they haven’t seen any records from Kavanaugh’s three-year tenure as Bush’s staff secretary and received more than 40,000 pages of other White House records only the night before the hearing began. A lawyer representing Bush’s library withheld 100,000 other pages as privileged at the request of the Trump administration.

Grassley said a delay wasn’t warranted. He refused to allow a vote on Blumenthal’s motion to adjourn the hearing, saying it was “out of order.“

“We have said for a long period of time that we were going to proceed on this very day,” Grassley said. “I think we ought to give the American people the opportunity to hear whether Judge Kavanaugh should be on the Supreme Court or not.“

Blumenthal accused Grassley of overriding the rights of committee members “by fiat.” Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, said the White House information was necessary so senators could be “fully equipped to do our constitutional duty.“

Republicans criticized Democrats for their repeated interruptions. Cornyn said that if the proceeding had been a court hearing, Democrats would be held in contempt. This process “is supposed to be a civil one,” Cornyn said.

Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, pointed to Senate Republicans’ refusal to allow a vote on President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland to the high court.

“You have to understand the frustration on this side of the aisle,” Feinstein said. She said the hearing involved “unique circumstances” because Trump faces serious problems involving criminal indictments, guilty pleas and convictions among his former aides.

Kavanaugh sat quietly amid the morning back-and-forth after speaking briefly at the beginning of the session to introduce his family members. He will deliver his opening statement at the end of Sept. 4’s session, with questioning scheduled for Sept. 4 and 5.

Republicans are aiming to get Kavanaugh seated by the time the court formally opens its term Oct. 1. Having ended the use of filibusters for high court nominees in 2017, they could confirm Kavanaugh without any Democratic votes.

Republicans are poised to reclaim their 51-49 Senate majority now that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has selected former Senator Jon Kyl to replace the deceased Senator John McCain.

—With assistance from Terrence Dopp.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission

To contact the reporters on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net; Laura Litvan in Washington at llitvan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net Laurie Asséo, Elizabeth Wasserman