Published 2:25 p.m. UTC Sep 5, 2018
WASHINGTON – Brett Kavanaugh began two days of intense questioning before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday in an effort to allay concerns that he would steer the Supreme Court sharply to the right.
Democrats opposed to his nomination will attempt to suss out his views on abortion, civil rights, health care, gay rights, gun control and a host of other issues that could reach the court in the decades he could serve there.
And with President Donald Trump implicated in campaign finance violations and special counsel Robert Mueller probing Russian influence in the 2016 election, Kavanaugh will be grilled on his view that presidents should not be subject to criminal investigations.
The 53-year-old's confirmation hearing opened in dramatic fashion Tuesday as Democrats demanded documents withheld from his years working in the White House under President George W. Bush. Dozens of protesters interrupted the proceedings and were arrested for disorderly conduct.
More protesters were back on Wednesday. Within the first half-hour, more than 20 people stood to shout complaints about health care, the environment and other issues and were pulled out of the hearing room by Capitol Police.
Kavanaugh sought to prove his independence in the early moments of Wednesday’s hearing despite continued protests. “That takes some backbone. It takes some judicial fortitude,” he said.
Twice he brought up United States v. Nixon, when the court unanimously ruled that President Richard Nixon had to turn over tapes that implicated him in the Watergate coverup, and indicated he would not back down to the president or Congress in the future.
“No one is above the law in our constitutional system,” he said. “No matter who you are in our system … it’s all equal justice under law.”
In a preview of what he will not tell Democrats on the panel, Kavanaugh said he will abide by “nominee precedent” and refuse to discuss cases or issues that might come to the court, as well as comment favorably or unfavorably on most past cases.
“As Justice Ginsburg said, ‘No hints, no forecasts, no previews,’” he said.
Kavanaugh was nominated July 9 to fill the seat of retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, the high court's swing vote for much of his 30-year tenure. Democrats and liberal advocacy groups fear Kavanaugh would produce a five-vote conservative majority for years to come. That could jeopardize longtime precedents such as abortion rights, upheld by the court in 1973, as well as recent statutes such as the Affordable Care Act.
The 21-member judiciary committee has at its fingertips more information about Kavanaugh than any previous nominee – some 500,000 pages. But it also is missing more from his career than any other nominee – particularly his three-year stint as Bush's staff secretary from 2003-06, deemed irrelevant by the Republican majority.
The incomplete record prompted several Democrats to urge that the hearing be postponed Tuesday, but committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, refused to back down. He and the panel's other 10 Republicans fully support Kavanaugh's nomination.
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Kavanaugh's 307 opinions as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – stepping-stone to the Supreme Court for three current and many former justices – will be the subject of questioning, as well as hundreds of speeches and articles in which he expounded on his judicial philosophy.
Kavanaugh dissented from his court's ruling last year that allowed an undocumented teenager in federal custody to get an abortion. He dissented in 2011 from a ruling that upheld a District of Columbia ban on semiautomatic rifles. And he dissented that same year from a ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act, but only on procedural grounds.
"A good judge must be an umpire – a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy," he said Tuesday in his opening statement. "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. In each case, I have followed the law."