Another Seat, Another Contentious Hearing
It has been over two years since former President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. He would have taken on the massive responsibility of replacing Justice Antonin Scalia. The Republican controlled Senate, led by Mitch McConnell, stalled, complained, and fought the president when the nomination was announced. The Republicans believed that it would be improper to vote on a Supreme Court nominee in an election year. Historically, this situation had come up during the Reagan administration, where a Democratic controlled Senate confirmed Anthony Kennedy in an election year. Despite the efforts of certain Republican Senators, McConnell won out, allowing the nomination to expire by the end of the 114th Congress in January 2017.
President Trump would nominate Justice Neil Gorsuch to the court in January 2017. The confirmation that lasted through March and April were difficult and tiresome. Democratic senators criticized many obscure cases that Gorsuch had written and questioned whether he would vote against the president on immigration and border security issues. Gorsuch did a phenomenal job deflecting questions about his character and voting record, but still McConnell was forced to “exercise” the nuclear option. This allowed him to change Senate rules, allowing for a simple majority to be all that was necessary to confirm Gorsuch. A few Democratic senators voted for him, but most continued to fume about the unfairness of the process.
The contentious hearings for Gorsuch set the stage when Justice Anthony Kennedy decided it was time to retire. Rumors had been speculating for months about his departure. It was thought that after Trump appointed Gorsuch, one of Kennedy’s clerks, that he would feel comfortable stepping down, knowing that the president would appoint someone with similar ideology. When Trump announced that Justice Brett Kavanaugh of the D.C. Court of Appeals would be nominated, it was regarded as a respectable move by many conservative senators.
Democratic senators were less than thrilled with the choice and immediately subjected the committee hearings to constant interruption and criticism. They pressed him with questions on how he would handle cases that involved President Trump and his policies. Kavanaugh continued to maintain the position that he would decline to comment on such matters and keep the focus on his past decisions. It was no surprise that he was also intensely questioned for his views on abortion as Democratic senators and many Republicans would refuse to vote for a nominee that promised to overturn Roe v. Wade and other landmark abortion cases. Adding to the chaos, Sen. Cory Booker found himself in hot water for threatening to release documents provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Kavanaugh’s views on racial diversity. Such a move he was warned could grant possible expulsion from the Senate.
The conflict was called into question after Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office declared that the documents had already been made public before Booker brought them forward. Either way, the hearings have been proven to be less about the judicial ideology and track record of Kavanaugh, but more about who can get access to his records. Even Justice Clarence Thomas commented on the hearings, criticizing the grandstanding of Booker and how it has turned into a partisan showing.
Continuing to complicate matters, just recently, an unidentified woman stepped forward accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault dating back to high school. She said she has used psychological treatment in an attempt to cope with the extreme distress that the incident caused. When she heard of the nomination, she ended up contacting her congresswoman, Rep. Anna Eshoo, along with contacting the office of Sen. Feinstein. The woman dropped the matter afterwards, letting Feinstein’s office decide what to do with the letter. Eventually, she released the matter to the FBI after much closed door debate and speculation. Kavanaugh has adamantly denied the allegations thus far.
The committee vote will take place on Sep. 20th. The letter most likely will not have an impact on the vote, but it casts a shadow on the entire process. In light of the #MeToo movement and the number of high profile sexual assault cases involving politicians, the Democratic senators know full well that such allegations could cause much harm. While these allegations should always be taken seriously, it is also known that there are serious political motives for releasing them at this time. Many senators and political commentators feel that the situation could become quite similar to the allegations against Justice Thomas by Anita Hill back in 1991. A process similar to that of Justice Thomas would be tiring, challenging, and create distrust in Kavanaugh’s ability to perform. However, political motivation and the future balance of the Supreme Court do call for desperate measures in the minds of the Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee.