Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh said the court "must never, never be viewed as a partisan institution," as he closed out the first day of a rancorous Senate hearing that has bitterly divided Republicans and Democrats.
"The justices on the Supreme Court do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle," Kavanaugh told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. "They do not caucus in separate rooms. If confirmed to the Supreme Court, I would be part of a team of nine, committed to deciding cases according to the Constitution and laws of the United States."
Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s pick to succeed the now-retired Justice Anthony 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.
Kavanaugh’s measured remarks stood in contrast to the rest of the day’s hearing, which was marked by interruptions and arguments among committee members, and loud protests by dozens of people in the packed audience. 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, which they’ve been barred from seeing.
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."
Trump, who chose Kavanaugh as his second high court nominee, said on Twitter that the hearings "are truly a display of how mean, angry, and despicable the other side is. They will say anything."
Democrats haven’t been able to undercut Kavanaugh’s status as a heavy favorite to win confirmation. Senate Republicans can confirm him without any Democratic votes. Committee members will question Kavanaugh on Wednesday and Thursday, and Republicans aim to get him seated before the court opens its term on Oct. 1.
Kavanaugh told the committee Tuesday that judges "must be independent, not swayed by public pressure."
"Over the past 12 years, I have ruled sometimes for the prosecution and sometimes for criminal defendants, sometimes for workers and sometimes for businesses, sometimes for environmentalists and sometimes for coal miners," Kavanaugh said. "In each case, I have followed the law."
In a confirmation hearing likely to focus heavily on abortion rights, Kavanaugh cast himself as a champion of women’s equality. Most of his 48 law clerks have been women, he said. A basketball coach for his two daughters’ teams, he praised the 1972 federal Title IX law, which he said "helped make girls’ and women’s sports equal."
Kavanaugh briefly choked up as he thanked his family and friends for their support. His wife, daughters and parents sat behind him as he delivered his statement.
During senators’ opening statements earlier Tuesday, 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.
The United States Capitol Police said that 70 people had been arrested during the hearing; 61 were removed from the hearing room itself, and another nine from the second floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The charges included disorderly conduct, crowding and obstructing, the police said.
All Republicans on the committee are publicly backing Kavanaugh or leaning that way. Panel 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.”
Grassley said he expects the committee to vote on confirmation on Sept. 20. The chairman told reporters after the hearing that the confirmation is in good shape, as evidenced by the fact that many of Democrats’ complaints were focused on process.
“I think it’s pretty clear that nobody has found any qualification problem with this nominee. It’s all been on process," Grassley said. "I expect that he will be on the court.”
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 noted that previous high court nominees, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, declined to get into specifics at their confirmation hearings.
"Senators were satisfied with these answers on precedent," Grassley said. "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."
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.
Blumenthal said Kavanaugh is likely to cast the pivotal vote on issues tied to Trump’s possible criminal culpability, including whether the president must obey a subpoena or testify before a grand jury.
“There is a basic principle of our Constitution and it was articulated by our founders: No one can select a judge in his own case," Blumenthal said. "That’s what the president is potentially doing here: selecting a justice on the Supreme Court who potentially will cast the decisive vote in his own favor.”
He added that, if Kavanaugh is confirmed, "there will always be a taint, there will always be an asterisk after your name."
‘You’d Better Win’
Republicans defended Kavanaugh, as well as Trump’s right to select him.
"You can’t lose the election and pick judges," Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said. "You want to pick judges, you’d better win."
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said the Supreme Court had adopted Kavanaugh’s view of the law 13 times.
"Judge Kavanaugh is no ideologue," Hatch said. "He is no extremist. He is a highly respected, thoughtful, fair-minded judge who is well within the judicial mainstream."
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."
Senators spent more than an hour sparring over the release of Kavanaugh’s record from his time in 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.
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.
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