Chaos in Senate as hearing on Trump's Supreme Court nominee opens

  • 4 Sep 2018

Democrats protested Republicans blocking access to documents stemming from the Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh's White House work more than a decade ago.

US Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh addresses the committee at the start of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on September 4, 2018. ( Reuters )

The Senate confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump's US Supreme Court pick, opened in chaos on Tuesday, as Democrats protested Republicans blocking access to documents stemming from the nominee's White House work more than a decade ago. The judge is scheduled to begin answering questions from lawmakers on Wednesday.

News photographers clicked pictures of a smiling Kavanaugh – the conservative federal appeals court judge picked by Trump for a lifetime job on the top US judicial body – as he entered the hearing room along with family members. 

But moments after the Judiciary Committee's Republican chairman Chuck Grassley opened the session, Democrats decried the withholding of the documents and asked to have the proceedings adjourned.

TRT World 's Jon Brain brings the latest from Washington DC.

'Travesty of justice'

Shrieking protesters also disrupted the hearing. They took turns yelling as senators spoke, with one shouting, "This is a travesty of justice," another shouting "Our democracy is broken" and a third urging, "Vote no on Kavanaugh." Security personnel removed dozens of demonstrators from the room.

"We cannot possibly move forward. We have not had an opportunity to have a meaningful hearing," Democratic Senator Kamala Harris said. Democratic Senator Cory Booker appealed to Grassley's "sense of decency and integrity" and said the withholding of the documents by Republicans and the White House deprived lawmakers of being able to properly vet the nominee.

"What are we trying to hide? Why are we rushing?" asked Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.

US Supreme Court nominee judge Brett Kavanaugh is surrounded by photographers as he takes his seat for his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on September 4, 2018.(Reuters)

Kavanaugh's time in the White House

Republican Senator John Cornyn accused Democrats of trying to conduct the hearing by "mob rule." Grassley ignored the Democrats' request to halt the hearing, saying it was "out of order" and accused them of obstruction. Republicans hold a slim Senate majority and can confirm Kavanaugh if they stay united. So far, there were no signs of Republican defections.

Trump nominated Kavanaugh, 53, to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement on June 27.

Democrats have demanded in vain to see documents relating to the time Kavanaugh spent as staff secretary to Republican former President George W Bush from 2003 to 2006. That job involved managing paper flow from advisers to Bush.

"I think we ought to give the American people the opportunity to hear whetherJudge Kavanaugh should be on the Supreme Court," Grassley said.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal called the hearing a "charade" and "a mockery of our norms."

Republicans also have released some but not all of the existing documents concerning Kavanaugh's two years as a lawyer in the White House Counsel's Office prior to becoming staff secretary.

Republicans have said that Democrats have more than enough documents to assess Kavanaugh's record, including his 12 years of judicial opinions as a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. They have accused Democrats of seeking to delay the hearing for purely political reasons.

Kavanaugh sat, fingers intertwined, quietly staring ahead at the committee members as audience members screamed while being dragged out of the hearing room.

Irked by a protester who interrupted him, Republican senator Orrin Hatch told Grassley, "Mr Chairman, I think we ought to have this loudmouth removed. We shouldn't have to put up with this kind of stuff."

Kavanaugh's opening statement

After hours silently listening to the partisan exchanges, Kavanaugh rose to be sworn in and give opening remarks. He stressed the court's independence at a time when Democrats say he was picked because Trump believes the judge's expansive views of executive power will help the president in investigations.

"Our independent Judiciary is the crown jewel of our constitutional republic," Kavanaugh told the senators.

"The Supreme Court is the last line of defence for the separation of powers and the rights and liberties guaranteed by the constitution." He said, "The Supreme Court must never, never be viewed as a partisan institution."

The 53-year-old judge choked up when talking about his family, particularly his parents, and drew chuckles from the room in naming all the girls he coaches on his daughter's basketball team.

There is a long history of heated fights over US Supreme Court nominations, with anger in both parties. But the Democratic frustrations that boiled over on Tuesday had been simmering for more than two years.

Democrats accused Senate Republican leaders of stealing a Supreme Court seat by refusing to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama's nominee to the high court Merrick Garland in 2016, allowing Trump to fill a Supreme Court vacancy instead.

Republicans also last year reduced the margin for advancing Supreme Court nominations from 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to a simple majority in order to force through the confirmation of Trump's first high court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

The Senate is likely to vote on confirmation by the end of the month. The court begins its next term in October.

The hearing gave Democrats a chance to make their case against Kavanaugh ahead of November's congressional elections in which they are seeking to seize control of Congress from Trump's fellow Republicans.

Moving the court to the right

If confirmed, Kavanaugh is expected to move the high court – which already had a conservative majority – further to the right. Senate Democratic leaders have vowed a fierce fight to try to block his confirmation. 

Democrats signalled that they would press Kavanaugh in depth on abortion and gun rights, among other issues, when they get to question the nominee.

Liberals are concerned Kavanaugh could provide a decisive fifth vote on the nine-justice court to overturn or weaken Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalised abortion nationwide. Kennedy was a solid conservative but sided with the court's liberals on some issues, including abortion and gay rights.

Kavanaugh is also likely to face questions about his views on investigating sitting presidents and the ongoing probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

In 2009, Kavanaugh wrote a law review article saying presidents should be free from the distractions of civil lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and investigations while in office.

"I find it difficult to imagine that your views on this subject escaped the attention of President Trump who seems increasingly fixated on his own ballooning legal jeopardy," Democrat Leahy said.