WASHINGTON – Brett Kavanaugh’s path to the Supreme Court ran into protests Tuesday as Democrats complained about withheld documents and protesters interrupted his confirmation hearing with shouts before being dragged out by Capitol Police.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, said the hearing had degenerated into “mob rule” within the first hour. Democrats said they were just seeking respect and accused Republicans of trying to push Kavanaugh through without a proper review.
Before the hearing began, Democrats on the committee gathered on the Supreme Court steps to complain about what they see as a lack of key documents about Kavanaugh’s tenure as staff secretary for former President George W. Bush.
“We go to these hearings under protest,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel’s senior Democrat.
Before the hearing could even get started, Democrats called for it to be adjourned so thousands of pages of just-released documents could be reviewed. More than a dozen people in the audience stood and shouted intermittently their opposition to the nominee, interrupting the proceedings. About half the public seats in the hearing room were empty after the protesters were removed.
“What is the rush? What are we trying to hide?” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said.
Democrats and Republicans squabbled over documents withheld from the 53-year-old Washington D.C. native’s years working for Republican causes.
Republicans are determined to push President Donald Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh to the full Senate later this month, but Democrats want to press the federal appeals court judge on his views on abortion, health care, guns and other hot-button issues.
Pledge to be an ‘umpire’
The nominee planned to tell the senators that he would be “an umpire,” a phrase used by Chief Justice John Roberts when he went before the committee in 2005.
“I don’t decide cases based on personal or policy preferences. I am not a pro-plaintiff or pro-defendant judge. I am not a pro-prosecution or pro-defense judge,” Kavanaugh will say, according to prepared remarks. “I am a pro-law judge.”
That won’t satisfy Democrats concerned about his past – and his future.
“There will be sparks at this hearing. Sparks will fly,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “And there will be a lot of heat.”
More: Five reasons Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court is controversial
The hearing is scheduled to last four days. Tuesday is being devoted to opening statements by committee members, three people chosen to introduce Kavanaugh and, finally, the judge himself. Questioning will begin Wednesday and last at least two days. Friday will focus on panels of supporters and opponents.
If all goes according to Republicans’ plans, the committee will vote later this month – almost surely along straight party lines – to send his nomination to the full Senate in hopes of getting him on the court by the Oct. 1 start of the 2018 term.
More important, however, is making certain nothing stands in Kavanaugh’s way that would delay confirmation beyond the November elections, when Democrats have an outside shot of winning a Senate majority.
Kavanaugh stands to inherit Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat on the court, and there is no seat more important. Kennedy, who retired in July, was the perennial deciding vote on 5-4 cases, usually siding with the four conservatives but swinging to the liberals’ side on abortion, affirmative action, gay rights and other social issues.
Trump’s first nominee to the high court, Neil Gorsuch, was confirmed in April 2017, 14 months after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia created a vacancy in President Barack Obama’s last year in office. Senate Republicans refused to consider Obama’s nomination of federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland for the vacancy.
Kavanaugh topped a list of 25 potential nominees put together by the White House in conjunction with conservative groups such as the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. He has been on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for 12 years and has authored 307 opinions, concurrences and dissents.
Massive paper trail
Before ascending to the bench, Kavanaugh assisted in the investigation of President Bill Clinton, which led to his impeachment, and worked for five years in the White House as deputy counsel and staff secretary under President George W. Bush. He has since said that presidents should not be subject to criminal investigations while still in office, a position that could affect Trump in the future.
The paper trail from those jobs proved to be too voluminous for the Senate to pile through in the eight weeks since Kavanaugh’s nomination. So Republicans have released only those documents they consider most relevant – about 440,000 pages for senators to see, and fewer than 300,000 publicly.
That’s far more than for any previous Supreme Court nominee, but millions of pages have been withheld. On Friday, the Trump administration said it would withhold more than 100,000 pages on the basis of presidential privilege.
“We were not able to get a lot of documents we felt we were entitled to,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee. “We’re laboring under this disadvantage.”