Supreme Court hearing starts amid angry protests

USA TODAY

Published 3:57 p.m. UTC Sep 4, 2018

Supreme Court hearing starts amid angry protests

WASHINGTON – The confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh erupted into shouting and partisan skirmishes Tuesday morning, with Democrats pushing to postpone the meeting and dozens of protesters being dragged out by the Capitol Police.  

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, said the hearing for President Donald Trump's nominee 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.

Kavanaugh is a federal appeals court judge who also worked in the White House for former President George W. Bush. Democrats are angry that Republicans dumped 42,000 documents about Kavanaugh on committee members the night before the hearing, giving them little time to review the records. They also are upset that Republicans did not seek documents from Kavanaugh's tenure as Bush's staff secretary.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel's senior Democrat, said Republicans have "cast aside" the traditional vetting process "in favor of speed."

"We go to these hearings under protest," Feinstein said as she and other Democrats gathered on the Supreme Court steps before the hearing.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the committee has received more than 483,000 pages of records from Kavanaugh's time working in the White House counsel's office during the Bush administration. He said he pushed for more than 290,000 pages to be posted on the committee's website for the public to read.

"In short, the American people have unprecedented access and more materials to review for Judge Kavanaugh than they ever had for a Supreme Court nominee," Grassley said.

Before the hearing could even get started, Democrats called for it to be adjourned so they could review the documents. Dozens of people in the audience stood and shouted intermittently their opposition to the nominee, interrupting the proceedings. Many of the public seats in the hearing room were empty after the protesters were removed, but more were allowed in.

The disruption got worse because protesters kept shouting just outside the hearing room, chanting, "Hell no, Kavanaugh." Police gave warnings before arresting a continuing stream of women and men shouting about abortion, health care and other issues.

At one point, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, described Kavanaugh as "qualified," only to be interrupted by a woman who stood and shouted, "How is he qualified if you won’t show us the record?" Hatch, visibly irritated, said "these people are so out of line" and called one protester a "loudmouth."

As Democrats complained about the absence of records, the White House sent out press statements listing the names of Democratic senators and how many times each senator had "interrupted" Grassley. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., had the most at 13, according to White House spokesman Raj Shah.

Republicans are determined to push Kavanaugh to the full Senate later this month, but Democrats want to press him on his views on abortion, health care, guns and other hot-button issues.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said Trump only wants justices who will overturn abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act and protect Trump from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

"If that’s not judicial activism, I don’t know what is," Leahy said.

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 480,000 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.”

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