Confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, began yesterday with a sustained uproar from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who protested Republican efforts to barrel through the process. From the opening moments, Democrats prevailed on committee chair Charles Grassley to postpone the hearings—or entertain their motion to adjourn—because so many of Kavanaugh’s records as associate White House counsel, and all of his records as staff secretary to President George W. Bush, have yet to be released.
Committee Republicans, undaunted by this breach of transparency, turned to laying the groundwork for the questioning of Kavanaugh, set to begin this morning, by sowing fear in the Republican base about what Democrats would do if he were not confirmed and they gained more control of the confirmation process after the midterms. Senator Ted Cruz reminded the public of litigation brought by religious groups, including Catholic nuns, against the Obama administration, claiming that employer-provided contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act violated their religious freedom. Democrats, Cruz charged, “want justices who will further that assault on religious liberty.”
The hearings were fast-tracked by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who is pressing the Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by October 1. The rushed timeline is just the latest maneuver in an aggressive Republican campaign to make sweeping, long-lasting changes to the federal judiciary by packing it with judges hostile to civil rights, reproductive freedom, LGBTQ equality, and church-state separation—while at the same time taking extreme measures to block Democratic nominees. If he is confirmed, the 53-year-old Kavanaugh could tip the balance of the high court for decades, potentially overturning the right to an abortion and dramatically expanding religious exemptions to civil-rights laws and reproductive-health services. He could play a pivotal role in matters that could decide the future of the Trump presidency, from the scope of executive power, which Kavanaugh has argued is vast, to whether or not a sitting president may be subpoenaed or charged with a crime. On a wide range of issues with a profound impact on the daily lives of Americans, a Justice Kavanaugh could prove the decisive vote that cements conservative gains, while wiping out past civil-rights advances.
In the coming days, the 21 senators on the judiciary committee will have an opportunity to ask Kavanaugh tough questions about his legal philosophy on abortion, LGBTQ rights, executive power, and, as the point person on government faith-based initiatives while in the White House counsel’s office of George W. Bush, the proper role of government in the face of faith-based discrimination. Civil-rights advocates say these are precisely the questions that must be posed, given the stakes in choosing a successor to Anthony Kennedy, long the Court’s crucial swing vote on many of these issues. But if a tight-knit network of conservative activists has its way, these senators will instead pull their punches, fearing ferocious, well-funded attacks that deliberately misrepresent such scrutiny as signs of anti-religious bias.