Brett Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford testify amid high-stakes, stark Anita Hill parallels
Drew Angerer/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Nearly three weeks ago, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh first took a seat before a panel of senators, fielded hours of questions and attempted to secure enough votes to be confirmed to the highest court in the land.
Now, Kavanaugh returns, this time for a public hearing on allegations from California professor Christine Blasey Ford, who sent a letter months ago to her senator, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee and Democrat Diane Feinstein of California, detailing a high school party at which she has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulted her.
According to written testimony released a day before the hearing, Ford plans to tell the committee she’s not there because she wants to be, but that she feels compelled to be.
“I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school,” she wrote in her anticipated opening statement.
The hearing, scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., will kick off with statements from Chairman Chuck Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa, and Feinstein.
Separately, Ford and Kavanaugh each will give opening statements and then field an hour and 45 minutes of questioning from the committee, which will alternate between Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans will likely yield their time to their outside counsel, Arizona attorney and former sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell.
Ford and Kavanaugh will not be in the room for one another’s testimony, and sources close to Kavanaugh told ABC News the judge will watch from Vice President Mike Pence’s office in the Senate chamber.
In the time since Ford’s story was made public, two other women have also come forward with allegations. Senators likely will ask the judge about their stories as well.
On Sunday, former Yale University classmate Deborah Ramirez publicly shared in the New Yorker that when they both were freshmen at Yale University, Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a drunken dorm party and “thrust his penis in her face.”
On Wednesday, Julie Swetnick, a resident of Washington, D.C., came forward and claimed to have directly witnessed sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh during his high school years, she wrote in a sworn declaration provided to the committee and released on Twitter by attorney Michael Avenatti, who also represents porn star Stormy Daniels.
According to the declaration, Swetnick allegedly observed Kavanaugh at more than 10 house parties in the early 1980s. She said at numerous parties Kavanaugh was drunk and engaging in what she called “highly inappropriate conduct,” including “fondling and grabbing of girls without their consent.”
Kavanaugh has repeatedly denied each allegation, most publicly in an interview on Fox News Monday night.
“America is about fairness — hearing from both sides,” Kavanaugh said, sitting next to his wife, Ashley. “I didn’t do this or anything resembling this. This is wrong.”
“Yes, people might have had too many beers on occasion. In high school, I think all of us have done things we look back on in high school and cringe a bit,” he said. “But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about an allegation of sexual assault, and I never sexually assaulted anyone.”
Kavanaugh plans to stand behind this denial and re-emphasize his commitment to the process in his prepared opening statement to the committee.
“This effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out,” the judge wrote in the statement released before Thursday’s hearings.
In 1991, two decades before the #MeToo movement helped force serious reflection on sexual abuse in the workplace, law professor Anita Hill sat before an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee and described sexual harassment she said she endured at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
The Hill hearings intensified the spotlight on the lack of women in government, and four women won Senate seats the following year — later dubbed the “year of the woman.” Before the 1992 elections, only two women served in the Senate.
As Kavanaugh sits before the Judiciary Committee, the parallels seem unavoidable — in part because movements such as #MeToo and events like the Women’s March have fueled the engagement of female voters who want to see a Senate Judiciary Committee that’s different from the panel of men in 1991.
And the Kavanaugh accusers who have come forward, all doing so after long periods of silence, have spawned another movement: #WhyIDidn’tReport. The viral rallying cry has filled social media feeds over the past few days with stories of women who felt so strongly that they wouldn’t be listened to in the aftermath of being sexually harassed that they never shared their stories.
The movement jumped from social media to the workplaces and schools nationwide on Monday, when thousands of women, including celebrities such as Kerry Washington and Debra Messing, wore all black and staged walkouts to show support for survivors of sexual assault. Additionally, more than 120 protesters were arrested outside senators’ offices on Capitol Hill.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress know the stakes of this hearing and that women will be watching — many as voters, and many as candidates in this election cycle.
With just 40 days until the 2018 midterm elections, more than 278 women are currently running in House, Senate and governors’ races — the highest number on record — and 214 of them are Democrats.
In Kavanaugh, Republicans saw a chance to reignite enthusiasm among their base and execute on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the court’s future, tilting the nine-justice bench to the right.
It’s a necessary boost for the party, which was hoping for an economy-centric message to sell to the American people this midterm cycle but has seen recent polling suggest the newly passed tax plan is not as big of a selling point as previously thought.
Just last week, Bloomberg reported that a poll commissioned by the Republican National Committee showed that by a 2-to-1 margin voters believe the tax plan benefits wealthy Americans.
Now, in the wake of the Kavanaugh controversy, Republicans are facing questions about support for their party’s nominee in the face of a larger movement of listening to women who say their voices have been too long silenced on issues of sexual assault.
As a result, on Tuesday, the committee said it had hired Mitchell, a woman, to conduct the Republican questioning of Ford.
Republicans like Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a key vote in Kavanaugh’s confirmation, told reporters he supported the choice by Grassley because he “would not be wanting to ask questions about something like this.”
“I think it’s really smart of them to get outside counsel,” Corker said. “Somebody will do something that you guys will run 24/7. Inadvertently, somebody will do something that’s insensitive.”
After meeting with Mitchell and other Republicans on the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy said he felt comfortable yielding his time to Mitchell to ask questions of Kavanaugh and Ford.
“She has expertise in ferreting out information in cases in allegations of sexual assault,” said Kennedy, adding that he believes she’s very good at what she does. “I’m even more convinced of that now that I’ve met her. We have no plans whatsoever to have any gotcha moments, go ‘Catwoman’ or ‘Batman’ on anybody.”
Across the aisle, Democrats sense the potency of this moment in an election cycle that has largely made respect for women a central issue.
While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took the floor Monday and stood firmly behind Kavanaugh, calling allegations against him “a Democratic smear job,” the Senate’s top Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, offered a direct rebuke Tuesday, saying McConnell should apologize to Kavanaugh’s accuser.
“Leader McConnell owes an apology to Dr. Ford for labeling her allegations a ‘smear job.’ Let me repeat that, Leader McConnell owes an apology to Dr. Ford for labeling her allegations a ‘smear job.’ And he should apologize to her immediately,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.
The president, who initially refrained from insulting the accusers, echoed McConnell on Wednesday.
Calling Kavanaugh a “wonderful human being,” the president said Democrats raising questions are not only playing a “con game” but claimed that “they don’t believe it themselves, they know he’s a high-quality person.”
“I can tell you that false accusations are made against all sorts of people … it would be a horrible insult to our country if this doesn’t happen … it cannot be allowed to happen,” Trump said in New York, answering reporter questions at the end of a meeting at the United Nations with the president of Colombia.
The president, who was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment during the 2016 election, discounted Ramirez’s account, the second accuser to come forward, because “she said she was totally inebriated and she was all messed up.”
However, he also said later during a press conference in New York that he could change his mind and withdraw the nomination after hearing the judge’s accusers speak out.
“They’re giving the women a major chance to speak. Now it’s possible I’ll hear that and say, ‘Hey, I’m changing my mind.’ Hey, that’s possible,” Trump said. “If I thought he was guilty of something like this, sure.”
Kavanaugh, 53, a longtime D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, could reasonably expect to serve on the Supreme Court well into the middle of the century — no doubt an attractive prospect to President Trump, who intentionally targeted young candidates for the posting, sources told ABC News.
Kavanaugh would be replacing the retiring Anthony Kennedy, who occasionally sided with left-leaning judges on issues like gay marriage, abortion and the death penalty. As a conservative judge, Kavanaugh is expected to move the bench to the right.
Earlier this month, Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings kicked off with a display of protest from Democrats on the committee — namely Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Kamala Harris of California and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — who objected to the late-release of hundreds of thousands of emails and documents that shed light on Kavanaugh’s time working for the George W. Bush administration.
As the nearly 40 hours of hearings proceeded beyond the topic of documents, senators on the Judiciary Committee mainly focused on Kavanaugh’s views on previous Supreme Court decisions, including Roe v. Wade and whether a sitting president can be subpoenaed.
On Roe v. Wade and other past cases, Kavanaugh said “nominee precedent” weighs heavily on him as he answers questions. He cited previous Supreme Court nominees as insisting in their confirmation hearings that judges can offer no forecasts or hints on how they might rule on a case.
“If I say something and the case comes before me five years from now I’ll feel morally bound by what I said here,” he said. “If I’ve crossed the line of what I should say, then I’m not going to have an open mind in that case. That’s a violation of judicial independence.”
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, was the first to ask Kavanaugh about abortion. She asked him to explain what he means when he says the Roe v. Wade decision is “settled law.”
Kavanaugh said Roe v. Wade was an “important precedent of the Supreme Court” that has been reaffirmed many times over the years, most important in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision in 1992. In that case, he said, the Supreme Court evaluated all the points of Roe using the legal process for evaluating previous cases and reaffirmed the decision, which makes Casey “precedent upon precedent” for the Roe decision, which established the legal right to an abortion in the United States.
He said he understood Feinstein’s point of view that women should have a right to legal abortion, though he did not say he agreed with that view.
“I understand how passionate and how deeply people feel about this issue. I understand the importance of the issue,” he said. “I understand the importance that people attach to the Roe versus Wade decision, to the Planned Parenthood versus Casey decision. I don’t live in a bubble. I understand I live in the real world. I understand the importance of the issue.”
On the issue of presidential subpoenas, a point of interest because of Kavanaugh’s work on independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation of former President Bill Clinton, and because of his time with the Bush administration, Kavanaugh refrained from answering hypothetical questions.
“I think to be consistent with the principle of the independence of the judiciary, I should not and may not make a commitment about how I would handle a particular case and the decision to participate in a case is itself a decision in a particular case,” he said.
He also declined to say that he would recuse himself from any criminal or civil case related to Trump, who nominated him.
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