On Saturday, Oct. 6, Brett Kavanaugh became the 114th Associate Justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), despite controversy during his confirmation process. While Kavanaugh was going through his confirmation hearings, three women accused him of sexually assaulting them in the 1980s.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward in mid-September with allegations against Kavanaugh, asking the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to look into the incident; though Senators also set the scope of the investigation and are rumored to have narrowed the scope considerably from Ford’s original request. Ultimately, the FBI was unable to corroborate Ford or Kavanaugh’s other accusers’ statements, and several Senators felt this was enough to move forward with the confirmation process.
“Dr. Ford provided believable testimony in the hearings before the Judiciary Committee and passed a polygraph test,” the Richard Nixon Republican Club (RNRC) said in a statement to the QC, “However, one also cannot jump to conclusions based on an accusation alone, as there are always at least two sides to a story.” The RNRC meets regularly on Campus to discuss politics, and affirmed their support for Kavanaugh. “The principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has historically been cherished in this country, and it must not be thrown out to be replaced with ‘guilty because accused’. In this politically charged atmosphere, we have sold ourselves on our differences instead of standing behind our shared values,” they said.
President Trump nominated Kavanaugh in July following Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. Justice Kennedy was considered the Court’s swing vote on important topics such as health care, gay marriage, and affirmative action. Now that Kavanaugh has been appointed to SCOTUS, he is predicted to be a strong conservative voice on the bench that solidifies a 5 – 4 majority over more liberal Justices. Most notably, those opposing Kavanaugh’s confirmation stressed the vulnerability of the 1973 SCOTUS case Roe v. Wade, which resulted in legalized abortion. Now that the bench has a conservative majority some are concerned that Roe will be overturned as an extension of the Republican party’s pro-life platform.
“The majority of members of the Supreme Court have been appointed by Republican presidents since 1972,” said Visiting Associate Professor Andrew Dzeguze. “He doesn’t change that, but he does represent the culmination of the Federalist’s Society project to put conservative people on the bench, and a true conservative ideology to be at the forefront.”
On campus, Assistant Professor of Political Science Sara Angevine and Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies hosted a talk with the Women and American Politics class titled “Is there justice in the Supreme Court?” Professor of History Laura McEnaney attended the talk, “to get a sense of how students, staff, and faculty were understanding and experiencing this historic moment. It helps me to understand and formulate my own views when I hear from others.”
The event was held prior to Kavanaugh’s confirmation, though McEnaney expressed concerns about the culture surrounding sexual assault, “If we start to look at these reports as partisan in any way, it is going to make it even harder for victims to come forward and for their charges to be evaluated fairly.”
The Kavanaugh appointment sparked rage and disappointment from many, but this is not the first time a SCOTUS nominee has faced serious accusations. In 1991, Clarence Thomas was appointed to SCOTUS after being nominated by George H. W. Bush. Thomas was accused of sexually harassing his former colleague Anita Hill. Many were outraged over Hill’s treatment during the interview process and Thomas’ eventual confirmation (52 – 48, the closest appointment since the 1800s, until Kavanaugh).
Comparisons have been drawn between Thomas and Kavanaugh, including the polygraph tests taken by Hill and Blasey Ford that corroborated their stories, witnesses supporting the victims’ statements who were not called upon, and the partisan claims that the opposition were fabricating accusations to prevent the nominees from being confirmed.
After Thomas was appointed, the 1992 elections featured more female candidates and subsequently more female elected officials than ever before, it is now known as “the Year of the Woman.” Women were already running for House of Representative seats in record numbers for the 2018 midterm elections following the release of an audio clip where President Trump (who was still a candidate at the time of the tape’s release, though the audio itself is from 2005) admitted to touching women inappropriately because his wealth and power allowed him to. Kavanaugh was appointed on the one year anniversary of the Trump tape’s release, and exactly one month out from election day. It is unclear whether Kavanaugh’s appointment will lead to similar results, or “The Year of the Woman Part Two” but the timing suggests it will be on voters’ minds in the weeks leading up to the election. Senators in key swing states headed for re-election, including Dean Heller (Republican-North Virginia) chose to toe the party line and vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “What I think as I watch this play out,” wrote fourth -year Charlotte Quarrie in an Opinions piece for the Quaker Campus, “is that Republicans have learned little from the Anita Hill hearings and the scandal that followed. These men have all the power in the country for many different reasons, and they have continued to consolidate it in ways that skirt the Constitutional legality. We need an overhaul of the system and of society.” Protestors took to the streets in the hours leading up to the Senate’s vote and ultimately Kavanaugh’s confirmation, shouting: “Shame, shame!” Many, including celebrities Amy Schumer and Emily Ratajkowski, were arrested for occupying the steps in front of the Senate building.
“Commentators are now talking about how Americans are losing trust in our basic institutions, the judiciary being one of them, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical of that line of thinking,” said McEnaney. “Our institutions (the judiciary, law enforcement, the education system, and others) have often not been fair to people of color for a long time, and sometimes I wonder if this “loss of faith” narrative is more about certain groups of white people who were accustomed to systems working for them now seeing a system less responsive to their needs and aspirations.”
Fivethirtyeight predicts that the Republicans have a 77.9 percent chance of retaining control over the Senate, the governing body that confirms SCOTUS nominees.
Kavanaugh is Trump’s second SCOTUS nominee in two years, and two more Justices are over the age of 80: Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 and Associate Justice Stephen Breyer is 80. Both Ginsburg and Breyer are considered to be more liberal, and, therefore, less likely to retire during Trump’s presidency, but if the Republicans have another victory in 2020, their hands may be forced.
To those feeling discouraged by Kavanaugh’s appointment, Professor Dzeguze encouraged students to turn out to vote in the midterm elections on Nov. 6. “There’s new scholarship that suggests that the Court has historically followed public opinion, whether they mean to or not. Very little of what they do is so out of sync with the general public opinion as to cause outrage,” said Dzeguze. “What’ll be interesting is: Does this shift in ideology mean [Justices] feel free to ignore popular sentiment? And that depends on what signals people send by voting. We don’t know.”