WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings got off to a raucous start on Monday, as Democrats immediately objected to the proceedings and called for a delay, after the White House refused to release a trove of documents related to his past tenure in President George W. Bush’s administration.
The typically stately process of advise and consent gave way to multiple moments of political theater.
More than a dozen times, protesters in the gallery shouted as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) attempted to bring the proceedings to order, and their outbursts continued later as he and other senators delivered opening remarks.
Capitol Police officers escorted the demonstrators out of the room, as the protesters shouted that Kavanaugh’s confirmation would threaten women’s rights, LGBT rights, and voting rights, as well as health care and checks on presidential power. Many times, after protester was ejected, and then a new demonstrator would fill the seat.
Among those arrested was actress Piper Perabo, an actress on “Notorious” and “Covert Affairs,” who said she “can’t be silent when someone is nominated to the Supreme Court who would take our equal rights away.”
A spokeswoman for the Capitol Police said 61 people were removed from the hearing and charged with disorderly conduct. Another nine were charged with unlawful demonstration activities for protests in a nearby office building.
As Grassley opened the hearing, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) raised the first of repeated calls from Democrats to delay the hearing. They questioned the White House’s decision to withhold more than 102,000 pages of documents from Kavanaugh’s tenure as staff secretary in the Bush administration on the grounds that they were privileged.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said “there is no valid claim there of executive privilege.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told reporters before the hearing that 93% of the records for Kavanaugh’s tenure in the White House have not been provided to the Senate and 96% are “hidden to the public.”
“What is the rush? What are we trying to hide by not having the documents out front?” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). He also objected to what he said was a “document dump” of 42,000 pages of documents on the eve of the hearing.
“Just on the basic ideals of fairness, the traditions of this body, we should have a thorough understanding of the nominee before us,” he added.
Grassley refused to even allow a vote to delay the hearing, and defended the Kavanaugh confirmation process as unprecedented in its release of information. At times in the first hour of the hearing, he got irritated as Democrats continued to press for a delay.
“How long do you want this to go on?” he asked.
Grassley said that all of the senators would get ample time to ask questions and make statements, and that the hearings would extend into the weekend if needed.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that the hearing was being “based on mob rule… It is hard to take it seriously when every single one of our colleagues have announced their opposition to this nominee even before the hearing.”
He also said that Kavanaugh’s work in the Bush White House would “teach us nothing about his legal views.”
As the senators argued back and forth, Kavanaugh sat in a witness chair and watched, and he occasionally jotted down notes.
Not until late in the afternoon did he speak, in an opening statement that was heavy in biographical details and less-than-specific on how he would view cases before the court.
“My judicial philosophy is straightforward,” he said. “A judge must be independent and must interpret the law, not make the law. A judge must interpret statutes as written. A judge must interpret the Constitution as written, informed by history and tradition and precedent.”
Kavanaugh’s confirmation could shift the balance of the court further rightward. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement in June, was a conservative but also a swing vote.
He hasn’t ruled directly on issues like abortion rights and LGBT rights, but activists opposing his nomination believe that his record is enough to trigger alarm that his confirmation would pose a threat. Where he has been clear in some of his opinions that have been skeptical of federal agency authority and regulations, including net neutrality.
The divisiveness surrounding Kavanaugh’s nomination was reflected in an ABC News/Washington Post poll showing that he was among the least popular nominees at this point in the confirmation process. Just 38% said that he should be confirmed, while 39% said he should not be, while 23% had no opinion.
In the hour before the hearing, a long line snaked outside the hearing room in the Hart Senate Office building for visitors trying to get a seat, while a group of demonstrators dressed in “A Handmaid’s Tale” costumes lined balconies that overlook the building’s atrium. It was a reference to their belief that Kavanaugh would mean the end to the precedent of Roe vs. Wade.
Thoughout the hearing, Democrats continued to object to the process and out of the ordinary of Senate norms.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Conn.) said to Kavanaugh, “You shouldn’t even be sitting in front of me today.”
He cited the Republicans refusal to meet with Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court in 2016. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to take up the nomination because it came during a presidential election year, and it was sidelined once Donald Trump became president.
Senators will begin questioning Kavanaugh on Wednesday.
Democrats are expected to focus on a host of issues, but also what Kavanaugh has said about presidential authority at a time when Special Counsel Robert Mueller is conducting an investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election, and whether members of Trump’s team colluded with sources linked to Vladimir Putin’s regime. Democrats expressed concerns over what Kavanaugh has said in the past about the legality of the special counsel.
“If you are in that seat because the White House has big expectations that you will protect the president from the due process of law, that should give every senator pause,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) pointed to a Minnesota Law Review article that Kavanaugh authored in 2009 in which he wrote that Congress “might consider a law exempting a President –while in office — from criminal prosecution and investigation, including from questioning by criminal prosecutors or defense counsel.”
“It is a simple concept we learned in grade school that no one is above the law,” Klobuchar said.
Feinstein suggested that she will ask him about his views on gun control measures. She told Kavanaugh that his “reasoning is far outside the mainstream of legal thought” and that his views on the Second Amendment would restrict the ability of Congress to restrict access to assault weapons.
Republicans claimed that Democrats were trying to use the process for political purposes, including fundraising and grandstanding in advance of the midterms and the 2020 presidential election.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said that Democratic opposition was “nothing more and nothing less than an attempt by my Democratic colleagues to re-litigate the 2016 election.” He said that the election was a referendum on the type of judicial nominees that voters prefer.
“If you want to pick judges from your way of thinking, then you better win an election,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). He told Kavanaugh that the Democrats were being “ridiculous” in their opposition. “You are one of the best choices a Republican could make,” he said.
As the committee took a break, Kavanaugh was confronted by Fred Guttenberg, the father of Jaime Guttenberg, one of the victims killed in the Parkland, Fla. high school shooting massacre in February. Cameras showed Guttenberg attempting to shake Kavanaugh’s hand, but Kavanaugh declined.
“He pulled his hand back, turned his back to me and walked away,” Guttenberg wrote on Twitter.
Raj Shah, a spokesman for the White House, said security intervened before Kavanaugh was able to shake his hand.
Another clip showed that Guttenberg attempted to explain that he was the father of a Parkland victim, but Kavanaugh turned away.