Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, in a particularly troublesome attempt to defend Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, announced in a radio interview this week that he’d “hate to…to have someone ask me what I did 35 years ago.”
That has earned the 85-year-old career politician a good share of mockery, because, of course, Grassley was a senator 35 years ago—a very conservative Republican from Iowa who entered the chamber in 1981 as an anti-reproductive-rights zealot. His long struggle to ban abortion has guided Grassley’s approach to the Supreme Court nomination fights he has overseen as chairman of the committee that effectively decides whether nominees will be confirmed—or even considered. In 2016, he bent every rule in order to block the confirmation of a highly qualified and highly regarded nominee to fill a vacancy on the high court, Judge Merrick Garland. Now, just two years later, he is bending every rule he can get away with bending to clear the way for the confirmation of a far less qualified and far more controversial nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
Opponents of reproductive rights hailed Grassley for obstructing Garland’s nomination, just as they now hail the committee chair’s obstruction of opposition to Kavanaugh’s nomination. They have literally declared that “Grassley was made for this moment.”
The seven-term senator was trying to make another of his many excuses for the nominee when the chairman responded to charges that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a 15-year-old girl when he was 17 by telling a conservative radio host, “We’re talking about, you understand we’re talking about 35 years ago. I’d hate to ask, have somebody ask me what I did 35 years ago. And I think I look at it this way.”
Grassley’s flip response to an extremely serious matter—the question of how the committee he heads plans to consider Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that she was assaulted by Kavanaugh—invites consideration of the senator’s decades-long crusade to deny women the right to choose.
Grassley knows exactly what he was doing 35 years ago. It is the same thing he is doing now: using every strategy and every tactic, making every excuse and manipulating every standard in order to make possible a Supreme Court decision that reverses Roe v. Wade. He is a wily legislator who will arrange a facade of fairness. But behind that facade is a sense of mission that so animates the senator and those around him that Mike Davis, the chief counsel for nominations on Grassley’s Judiciary Committee, announced, even as the chairman was making pious pronouncements about affording Dr. Ford an honest hearing, that they were “Unfazed and determined. We will confirm Judge Kavanaugh.”
Grassley, who began his political career during Dwight Eisenhower’s second term, was one of the first wave of senators to be elected with the backing of the so-called “religious right”—backing that went to candidates who were explicit about their determination to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Elected in the Republican-wave year of 1980 that put Ronald Reagan in the White House, Grassley beat a liberal Democrat, John Culver, in a contest where one Iowa newspaper noted that “Culver was targeted for defeat by several conservative interest groups, including the anti-abortion lobby, which flooded the state with anti-Culver literature in the final days of the campaign.”
Grassley campaigned during his first term for a constitutional amendment that would lay the groundwork for undoing Roe—the decision that determined that the right to privacy outlined in the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment extends to a woman’s decision to seek an abortion—by declaring: “A right to abortion is not secured by this Constitution.” Even in a Republican-controlled Senate, even in a time when many conservative Southern Democrats were voting against abortion rights, this effort did not get far. The big test came in 1983—35 years ago—when the chamber voted on the so-called “Human Life Federalism Amendment,” which would have permitted Congress and the states to restrict or even bar access to abortions. The measure needed 67 votes to advance. It got just 49.
One of the 49 was Chuck Grassley, who would spend the next 35 years focusing on a different strategy for overturning Roe. Instead of seeking to amend the Constitution, Grassley put his energy into amending the high court.
Over the past three and a half decades, Grassley has worked to pack the federal courts with anti-abortion stalwarts. He has not won every fight and, as a savvy senator, he has compromised where necessary in order to attain respect and power. He has stood down when it has not been possible to block some pro-choice nominees—as have many of the Senate’s most ardent foes of reproductive rights. But Grassley has remained strikingly focused on that work of overturning Roe. The Judiciary Committee has been his workplace. Grassley is a farmer, not a lawyer. But he has been a stalwart member of the committee since he came to the Senate in 1981. And he has made little secret of his mission on the committee—a mission that he is now maneuvering to complete.
Grassley may say, “A good judge never bases decisions on his preferred policy preferences.” He may warn members of the committee—as he did at the opening of the initial Kavanaugh hearing—that “seeking assurances from a nominee on how he will vote in certain cases or how he views certain precedent undermines judicial independence and essentially asks for a promise in exchange for a confirmation vote. It’s unfair and unethical.”
But there is no question about Chuck Grassley’s preference when it comes to judges. He wants judges like Kavanaugh—a veteran political operative and jurist whose record, as we are reminded by Dawn Laguens, the executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, “shows that if confirmed to the Supreme Court, he would destroy our reproductive rights by, at minimum further hollowing out Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that recognized the constitutional right to abortion.” The past several years, beginning with the Garland fight and extending to this money, mark what Grassley and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell see as the final stage in a long struggle. They know what is at stake. They literally meet with the National Right to Life committee and other anti-choice groups to plot strategy for obstructing or advancing nominations.
“Senator Grassley has surrendered every pretense of independence,” then–Senate majority leader Harry Reid, said in 2016.
Grassley announced that year that he would use his chairmanship to block any Supreme Court nominee put forward by President Barack Obama—in a letter from Judiciary Committee Republicans that vowed to “not hold hearings on any Supreme Court nominee until after our next president is sworn in on January 20, 2017.” Reid said at the time that the Iowan was determined “to go down in history as the most obstructionist Judiciary chair in the history of this country.”
That’s true. But the greater truth is that, since he came to the Washington, Grassley has been determined to go down in history as the Judiciary Committee member and chairman who packed the highest court in the land with reliably right-wing judicial activists to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision. Planned Parenthood’s Laguens says that “any Senator who supports him is complicit in the further erosion of women’s rights in America.”
But no senator is more complicit than Chuck Grassley. This has been his mission for the past 35 years.