After delay tries, Kavanaugh hearings settle down

September 4, 2018 GMT

WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., led an effort to delay opening day of confirmation hearings Tuesday for President Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, demanding the Republican majority adjourn the proceedings until Senators have time to review records of the nominee’s service in former President George W. Bush’s White House.

Between objections of Blumenthal and interruptions of more than a dozen protesters, three days of hearings got off to a tumultuous start — underlining the high stakes of vetting a justice who, if confirmed, would likely tip the nation’s highest court in a firmly conservative direction.

Blumenthal led off what appeared to be a planned move by minority Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to at least temporarily derail the hearings, demanding adjournment until committee members have a chance to review documents, 42,000 pages of which were delivered Monday night.

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A Republican member, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, branded the Democratic tactics “mob rule,” drawing a rebuke from Blumenthal.

“Far from mob rule, we’re simply asking for respect here,” Blumenthal said.

Meanwhile, protesters punctuated the proceedings with shouts from the back of the hearing room. “Brett Kavanaugh is an enemy of women’s rights!” one protester chanted as police officers removed her. Another protester brandished a sign: “Roe - yes, Kav-nope.” Chants of “dump Kavanaugh, dump Kavanaugh, dump Kavanaugh,” rang out through closed doors into the hearing room even after protesters were removed.

Animating the strategy of Blumenthal and other Democrats were bitter memories of Republicans in 2016 denying a hearing for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. When Donald Trump won the presidential election that year, he filled the vacancy left by the death of conservative stalwart Justice Antonin Scalia with conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch.

So instead of a court tipping in a liberal direction, the court is just one vote away from tipping in a solidly conservative direction. Kavanaugh, a judge on the D.C. federal appeals court, would replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, a nominee of President Ronald Reagan who often became the swing vote in hot-button cases, including abortion, campaign finance and same-sex marriage.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, rebuffed Blumenthal’s effort to adjourn the hearing by saying such a motion could only be made behind closed doors in executive session. Grassley then pushed off Blumenthal’s motion to go into executive session.

At issue was the question of how much documentation should be provided on Kavanaugh’s service as staff secretary and associate counsel in the Bush White House.

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Blumenthal and other Democrats insisted only about 9 percent of documents relevant to Kavanaugh’s White House service had been turned over. And about 142,000 of those pages were ruled “committee confidential,” meaning Senators can review them but cannot refer to them in questioning Kavanaugh nor release them to the public.

“We have been denied real access to the documents we need to advise and consent, which turns this hearing into a charade and a mockery of our norms,” Blumenthal said.

Grassley countered that the Democrats’ document demands were little more than a smokescreen, and that more than 400,000 pages have been turned over.

“Senators have more documents from Kavanaugh than any nominee in Senate history,” Grassley said.

Blumenthal and other committee Democrats tried appealing to Grassley’s sense of fairness and respect for the rights of the minority party, whether it be Republican or Democrat. Blumenthal quoted back a Grassley statement that full disclosure and transparency — “sunshine” — is the “best disinfectant” in the political realm.

But ultimately, the hearing settled down to sparring over the expected controversial topics of Kavanaugh’s record and legal viewpoints. In questioning, Blumenthal and the other Democrats are expected to express doubt over the legitimacy of the nomination overall, since legal clouds are gathering over Trump.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s 2016 campaign connections to Russia gathered steam last month after his prosecutors won conviction of New Britain native Paul Manafort on tax evasion and bank fraud chargers. Also, former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to charges related to pre-election payments to two women with whom Trump allegedly had sexual relationships. In the plea, Cohen said Trump directed him to make the payments — a possible campaign finance violation.

Democrats will focus on the possibility that Kavanaugh, if confirmed, could sit in judgment of Trump on legal issues such as presidential immunity and not responding to a subpoena.

Grassley and the committee’s Republican majority are skirting the fact it was Trump who nominated Kavanaugh. Their focus is on Kavanaugh’s extensive legal experience, including 12 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, often cited as the nation’s second most influential court after the U.S. Supreme Court.

dan@hearstdc.com