Published 9:59 PM EDT Sep 16, 2018
I don’t want Brett Kavanaugh to be confirmed for the Supreme Court. Based on what he has said and written, I fear that Kavanaugh will roll back reproductive rights, environmental regulations and many other causes that I hold dear.
But I’m also opposed to the latest gambit in the campaign against Kavanaugh, who faces an allegation from California psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford that he tried to sexually assault her at a party when they were in high school. I find Ford's story entirely believable: She talked about it years ago with her future husband and later a therapist, among others, and has passed an FBI-administered lie detector test, according to The Washington Post.
Yet I still think it's a poor reason to bar Kavanaugh from the court. And it plays into the hands of the judge’s Republican handlers, who have tried to make this battle about Kavanaugh’s character rather than his jurisprudence.
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Last week, we learned that Ford, whose identity was disclosed Sunday by The Post, had sent a letter to Democratic lawmakers about the attempted assault. In the letter and Post interview, she says Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge trapped her in a bedroom during a party in the early 1980s and locked the door; Kavanaugh got on top of her, tried to take off her clothes, and put his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream; Judge jumped on both of them, they fell, and she was able to free herself.
Kavanaugh denied the allegation Friday, as did Judge. If everything happened exactly as Ford recounted, it reveals a very different Kavanaugh than the squeaky-clean family man whom Republicans have been praising ever since President Donald Trump nominated him for the court.
But Kavanaugh was a teenager at the time. Of course he was different then; he was a third of the age he is now. And teens do stupid, dangerous and destructive things.
Barack Obama was a member of his Hawaii high school’s “Choom Gang,” which was named after its taste for marijuana. Obama and his buddies would roll up the windows in their car when they were getting high, then tilt their heads back, and inhale the smoke that had collected under the ceiling.
John F. Kennedy lost his virginity to a prostitute in Harlem when he was 17; fearing that he had contracted venereal disease, he spent the rest of the night in a panicked search for a physician.
Jeb Bush was a noted partier at Andover, which put him on probation for drinking. Taller than most of his peers, Bush bullied several of them.
Mitt Romney was a bully, too, teasing an effeminate classmate for his long hair. Together with several friends, Romney cornered him with a scissors and cut off most of it.
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Let's be clear: What the teenage Brett Kavanaugh is accused of doing is awful and indefensible. But so is tormenting a gay kid and chopping off his hair.
And the more we talk about what Kavanaugh did or didn’t do a third of a century ago, the happier his Republican supporters will be. From the beginning, they have tried to focus the confirmation battle on whether Kavanaugh is a good guy.
He sure seems like one. He dined with his law students, volunteers at soup kitchens, and coaches his daughter’s basketball team. He even drives the car pool!
But that has nothing to do with whether he’d be an effective Supreme Court justice, or whether he’d protect the rights of all Americans. A lovely human being can cause enormous harm on the court, just as a terrible person can be a great tribune for justice and progress.
Take William O. Douglas, who served on the Supreme Court longer than any other justice. Douglas was a tireless defender of free speech, abortion rights and the environment. He was also, by most accounts, a nasty and egotistical jerk.
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Douglas ignored his children and cheated on each of his four wives. He married his third wife when she was 23 and he was 67; she said he beat her repeatedly. Two years later he married his fourth spouse, a cocktail waitress who was 22.
He was also abusive to his law clerks and secretaries, who often couldn’t keep up with his frenetic pace. “If you hadn’t stopped working, you wouldn’t be tired,” he once told an exhausted aide.
Most of all, William O. Douglas was a great fan of William O. Douglas. Believing he should be president, he tried to become Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944. Douglas always thought the Supreme Court was beneath him; the Oval Office was more his style.
In other words, Douglas was the exact opposite of the modest, stand-up guy that Kavanaugh appears to be. But he might have done more than any other Supreme Court justice to spread real justice across the land.
Enough about Kavanaugh's character, and whether his teenage self bears any relation to his contemporary one. It diverts us from the only thing that counts: how he'd rule on the Supreme Court. I’d rather have a jerk on the court who protects our rights than a gentleman who undermines them. Wouldn't you?
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a co-author of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”