Yesterday’s first day of confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh was a colossal embarrassment for everyone, save perhaps the nominee himself. It began with a series of sophomoric interruptions from protesters inside the Senate chamber–an undignified and unfortunate extension of our current national tantrum, which increasingly values volume and resistance over logic or civility. Watching the early minutes of the hearing, I kept waiting for a member of the committee–Chairman Grassley, or for that matter any of the Democrats within whose camp the protesters fell–to make explicit that such interruptions were entirely inappropriate and undignified. I waited in vain. As it was, the ongoing shrieks made it appear that no one really was in control of the moment.
It went largely downhill from there, culminating later in the day in an appalling libel of Judge Kavanaugh’s former clerk Zina Bash by social media trolls on the left, who accused Bash–a Mexican-born granddaughter of Holocaust survivors–of being a white supremacist. The whole event was a sad display of our dysfunctional politics, and a good example of the behavior that judges work to prevent in their own courtrooms.
Indeed, yesterday’s hearing sorely needed a presiding judge–an authority figure with some spine, wisdom, knowledge, and confidence. Nowhere was that better illustrated than during the interminable debate among committee members about the late-produced (or still withheld) documents relating to Judge Kavanaugh’s career. Continue reading “Scenes from a tire fire: Day One of the Kavanaugh hearings”
The confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh commenced this morning in Washington, DC. The hearings began with a series of objections by Democratic members of the committee to tens of thousands of pages of documents that have been withheld by the White House.
The livestream of the hearings (from CSPAN) can be found here.
It has been widely reported that President Trump is filling federal judicial vacancies at a much faster pace than his predecessors. But the political impact of that pace is blunted by several factors, including the fact that most existing vacancies were created by the retirement of a previous Republican appointee, and the fact that many circuit courts continue to be dominated by Democratic appointees.
Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution provides an outstanding analysis of the impact of the President’s judicial appointments here. It is highly recommended reading, as is everything Russell writes on this and related issues.
A few quick hits on President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court:
- Predictions are easy to make, and hard to make correctly. If I were better at this, I would have moved to Vegas already.
- Judge Kavanaugh will be subject to the same partisan rancor that has infected our federal judicial nomination process for nearly two decades. But he is surely qualified for the Supreme Court. His dozen years on the D.C. Circuit, as well as his educational and professional background, more than qualify him.
- That said, I firmly believe that the President would have been more politically expedient for the President to nominate Joan Larsen (or one of several other former state supreme court justices) for the seat. Judge Kavanaugh is a “safe” pick in part because he has the profile of a consummate Washington insider. Born and raised in Bethesda, his professional career has primarily been spent within the federal government, and he doesn’t appear to have spent much time at all outside the Beltway. (Yale and two clerkships seem to be the bulk of his non-D.C. experience). President Trump had a real opportunity to woo voters in Middle America with a non-East Coast pick, and there were several highly qualified nominees of that sort on his 25-person short list. It is disappointing that someone with greater familiarity with America beyond the Beltway wasn’t picked.
- In the same vein, and despite Judge Kavanaugh’s credentials, I am also disappointed that another D.C. Circuit judge will populate the Supreme Court. The Court already has three D.C. Circuit alums (Roberts, Thomas, and Ginsburg). The D.C. Circuit is an important court, to be sure, but it hardly needs four justices out of nine with that limited perspective.
- I thought Trump would nominate a woman, if only to create a political advantage over the identity politics-obsessed Democrats in the Senate. The Kavanaugh nomination indicates that Trump was not interested in engaging that dynamic this time around. But it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t revisit it soon. Perhaps he is counting on another vacancy opening in the next two years; if Justice Ginsburg retires, he could nominate a woman (perhaps an even more seasoned Joan Larsen) and really watch the fur fly.
- From the perspective of the courts themselves (and, after all, that’s what this blog is about), the Kavanaugh nomination means more judicial cascades to come. Assuming the nomination is successful, Trump will now have the opportunity to fill Judge Kavanaugh’s D.C. Circuit seat with a (presumably) younger judge of the same qualifications and ideological bent. If he pulls such a judge from the district court ranks, he will have another vacancy for the trial courts as well. Given the record pace with which he is nominating (and the Senate is confirming) federal judges, the courts will have a continued infusion of relatively young (Gen X) judges at all levels.
His letter to the President is here (h/t SCOTUSBlog).
Reaction from Senate Republicans on Senator Jeff Flake’s plan to hold up judicial nominations until Congress acts on tariff and trade issues has been respectful but wary, according to this piece in The Weekly Standard:
Although some of Flake’s colleagues have similar convictions concerning Trump’s use of tariffs, they say they won’t go so far as to block Trump’s appointees.
“I am not holding up judicial nominees for that purpose,” Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey told reporters on Monday night.
Toomey is a co-sponsor of a measure originally introduced by Bob Corker that would subject tariffs imposed under national security claims through Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act to congressional approval. Trump has angered close trading partners (and Republicans on Capitol Hill, for that matter) by using that authority to impose tariffs of 25 percent and 10 percent on foreign steel and aluminum. The White House intends to use it again to impose tariffs of 25 percent on imported automobiles.
Toomey and Flake agree that Trump’s license to implement such duties without congressional approval should be revoked. And Toomey said on Monday night that getting a vote on the trade bill is “very important to me” — but so is confirming Trump’s judicial nominees. And Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, another co-sponsor of the Corker bill, said that he would love to see Congress reclaim its Article I constitutional authority over tariffs, but that he wasn’t insisting it happen “at exactly this moment in time.”
“I’d prefer he not do it,” Johnson said of Flake’s strategy of targeting Trump’s judicial nominees. “We need to confirm judges.”
Corker himself appeared wary of the notion. “We’re trying to pass the amendment in a normal way,” Corker shouted through the glass of a Senate subway car as the train propelled him away from a gaggle of reporters on Monday night.
Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley said on Monday night that he hadn’t spoken to Flake about the issue. “I’m interested in moving these judges, but I also have respect for what [Flake] wants to do,” Grassley told reporters. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said he would prefer to advance trade legislation through the Finance Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over the issue. Still, Cornyn didn’t appear completely opposed to the concept of curtailing Trump’s ability to unilaterally impose the Section 232 tariffs.
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of the most prominent Republican critics of President Trump, has stated that he “and a few other senators” plan not to vote on any more federal judicial nominations until Congress acts on other issues:
“I do think that unless we can actually do something other than just approving the president’s executive calendar, his nominees, judges, that we have no reason to be there,” Flake said. “So, I think myself and a number of senators, at least a few of us will stand up and say let’s not move any more judges until we get a vote for example on tariffs.”
“The Senate ought to bring legislation to the floor that says hey, we’re going to push back here,” Flake said. “The European Union exporting cars to the U.S. does not represent a national security threat.”
Senator Flake is right about the need for Congress to step up and do its job in a rigorous and thoughtful manner. But it’s a damning indictment of that body that it cannot simultaneously govern the country and approve judicial nominees. Meanwhile, the federal court system continues to operate with many fewer judges than it believes necessary to do its work properly.