Explosive supreme court battle leaves the nation riven by bitter divisions
Brett Kavanaugh’s expected confirmation to highest court in the land will change American political life for decades
Donald Trump hailed “a big day for America” yesterday as protesters mounted a last-ditch expression of their fury at the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh as a judge on the US supreme court.
Holding placards reading “hell hath no fury like millions of women scorned” and “Kava-nope”, demonstrators gathered outside the highest court in the land as senators prepared to hold a final vote on whether to confirm Kavanaugh to the lifelong position – and tilt America’s highest court in a conservative direction for decades.
In anticipation of a major victory after weeks of shocking allegations, rage-fuelled hearings and raucous protests that have further divided America, the president focused his praise on those who had turned out, he said, to support his nominee, “this very good man”. “It is a beautiful thing to see,” he tweeted. “Big day for America!”
To many, Kavanaugh will be forever tainted by accusations by Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychiatrist, that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers at a high school party, and by doubts over his honesty during intensely emotional and partisan testimony at a Senate judiciary committee hearing.
The bitter political fight has crystallised the polarisation of the Trump era. It has also become a cultural lit-
mus test of the strength of the yearold #MeToo movement, which inspired women to speak out about incidents of sexual harassment and abuse, as it collided with the patriarchy of a political establishment dominated by ageing white men. On Friday night all the way through to yesterday morning, Democrats staged a last stand on the Senate floor with a series of speeches opposing the nominee. “Today, in just a few hours, the United States Senate is going to turn its back on righteousness,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said. “It’s going to turn its back on fairness and reason. And make no mistake, it is going to turn its back on women.” But it was almost certainly in vain after Kavanaugh cleared a key procedural vote on Friday. In that 51-49 result, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the lone Republican to oppose his nomination, while Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat up for reelection in conservative West Virginia, was the only Democrat to break from his party and back the judge.
Thousands of protesters, many of them victims of sexual assault, had flooded the US Capitol in the days leading up to the vote with impassioned pleas to reject Kavanaugh. In scenes of raw, visceral anger, senators were challenged in corridors and lifts and were booed and jeered as they went to vote. There were hundreds of arrests. But two closely watched Republican moderates, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona, ultimately gave Kavanaugh their stamp of approval.
In a 45-minute speech, Collins said she found Ford’s testimony last month describing Kavanaugh’s alleged 1982 drunken assault as “sincere, painful and compelling” but added: “The facts presented do not mean that Professor Ford was not sexually assaulted that night, but they do lead me to conclude that the allegations failed to meet the more-likely-than-not standard.”
Collins faced a fierce backlash from activists. And protesters chanted “Shame on you!” at Manchin when he talked to reporters outside his office.
The tensions over Kavanaugh’s nomination underscored the deep mistrust between the two major parties in Washington, underlining concern about the nation’s broken politics. Senator John Kennedy described the confirmation process as “an intergalactic freak show”. Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the judiciary committee, said the Senate was approaching “rock bottom”.
Republicans claimed a reopened FBI investigation over the past week had found no evidence to corroborate the accounts of Ford and Deborah Ramirez, a former classmate of Kavanaugh’s who alleged he exposed himself to her while the two attended Yale University. Democrats said the investigation was incomplete and had been curtailed by the White House.
Kavanaugh vehemently denied Ford’s allegations when he testified last month on Capitol Hill, furiously and tearfully claiming there had been a smear campaign by Democrats. He sought to repair his reputation in a column published on Thursday in the Wall Street Journal. “I might have been too emotional at times,” he wrote. “I said a few things I should not have.”
The controversy became one of most explosive supreme court battles since 1991, when conservative justice Clarence Thomas was confirmed after being accused of sexual harassment by his former employee, Anita Hill.
Trump, who has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual harassment, at first showed signs of restraint in his response to the allegations against his nominee. After Ford testified, he called her a “very fine woman” who offered a “compelling” account. But at a rally in Mississippi before the vote, he mocked Ford’s testimony before a cheering crowd.
Trump and his allies have turned the saga into a narrative of male victimhood. The president described it as a “scary time for young men” who might be falsely accused. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told a hearing: “I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should just shut up, but I will not shut up.”
Republicans claimed that polls show signs of a “Brett bounce” in next month’s elections for control of Congress, firing up party supporters who might otherwise have not bothered to vote. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives, told Fox News: “Prior to the Kavanaugh hearing, the intensity level was really on the Democratic side ... But in the last week there has been a fundamental shift.”
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said yesterday: “It’s certainly not going to hurt Democratic enthusiasm – that’s a safe bet – but Kavanaugh did gin up Republican enthusiasm as well because a lot of Republicans felt a good man was being railroaded unfairly. You are going to have energised voters on both sides.”
Republicans have appeared willing to take short-term pain at the ballot box for the prize of shifting the supreme court for a generation. Trump vowed as a candidate to nominate “pro-life” judges in a commitment that helped earn him the support of religious conservatives. His selection of Kavanaugh to replace the retired Anthony Kennedy was hailed as the crowning achievement of a three-decade effort to install a conservative majority on the nation’s highest bench.
A key focal point of the early opposition to his nomination focused on his views on Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 supreme court decision that affirmed a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.
Disputes over abortion, immigration, gay rights, voting rights and transgender troops could all head towards the court soon. Kavanaugh’s could be the decisive vote.
Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin told CNN: “Abortion, affirmative action, campaign finance, gay rights – all those are going to go in a very different direction because Anthony Kennedy is gone and Brett Kavanaugh will be there.”
Protesters, above, opposed to the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, below, outside the supreme court in Washington yesterday.