WASHINGTON — The fireworks began before Brett Kavanaugh said a word.
On Monday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee commenced its hearings on Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. But what was expected to be an anticlimactic affair, with Republicans lobbing softball questions and Kavanaugh offering perfunctory pledges to respect precedence and “call balls and strikes,” was instead raucous from the outset.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) kicked off the protests. “Mr. Chairman, the committee received just last night, less than 15 hours ago, 42,000 pages of documents that we have not had an opportunity to review and analyze. We cannot possibly move forward with this hearing. We have not been given an opportunity to have a meaningful hearing on this nominee.”
“Mr. Chairman, I would like to be recognized to ask a question before we proceed. The committee received just last night – less than 15 hours ago – thousands of documents that we have not had a chance to read or review or analyze. We cannot possibly move forward.” pic.twitter.com/IWSeM6AtNx
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) September 4, 2018
The morning only grew more contentious as the other Democrats on the committee chimed in, one after another, asking Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the chair of the Judiciary Committee, to delay the hearing until thousands of pages of outstanding documents had been received or reviewed. “What is being done here is unprecedented,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). “What are we trying to hide?” Out in the gallery, protesters stood up and yelled “vote no” and criticized Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Adam Liptak, the Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, said he’d never seen such a chaotic opening in covering five previous confirmation hearings:
I’ve covered five other Supreme Court confirmation hearings. None of them included anything like the chaos in the opening minutes of the Kavanaugh hearings this morning.
— Adam Liptak (@adamliptak) September 4, 2018
Grassley tried to talk over the Democrats and introduce Kavanaugh, but eventually let them speak. But he refused to allow a vote to adjourn the hearing for a later date.
The arguments between the Democrats and Republicans consumed the first hour of the hearing. The Judiciary Committee’s official Twitter account criticized the Democrats mid-hearing: “The Minority receives the same amount of @SenJudiciary funds for resources/staff as the Majority. The Majority staff has reviewed all Kavanaugh documents. The Minority says they need more time. Why can’t the Minority work as efficiently as the Majority? #DelayTactics #SCOTUS”
The Minority receives the same amount of @SenJudiciary funds for resources/staff as the Majority. The Majority staff has reviewed all Kavanaugh documents. The Minority says they need more time. Why can't the Minority work as efficiently as the Majority? #DelayTactics #SCOTUS
— Senate Judiciary (@senjudiciary) September 4, 2018
All the while, Kavanaugh sat at the witness table, his family in the gallery behind him. An hour into the hearing, he had barely opened his mouth.
Eventually, the hearing settled into a rhythm as the senators delivered their opening statements. The Democrats railed against the fact that so many documents relating to Kavanaugh’s work in the George W. Bush White House had not been produced. “All told, only 4 percent of your White House records have been shared with the public,” Leahy said. “Only 7 percent has been made available to this committee. The rest remains hidden from scrutiny.” Leahy went on to call the Senate’s vetting work for Kavanaugh’s nomination “a sham.”
The committee’s Republicans, meanwhile, took a fawning approach. The worst offender may have been Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who used his allotted time to point out Kavanaugh had twice run the Boston Marathon and served as a volunteer basketball coach — “Coach K,” Flake noted — in the Washington, D.C., area. Kavanaugh’s time as a coach, a positively smitten Flake said, “demonstrates and says a good deal about [his] character.”
Fittingly, the most contentious moment so far took place during a lunch break. Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jamie, was killed in the Parkland mass shooting, had traveled to Washington for the hearing. During the break, Guttenberg approached Kavanaugh and offered to shake the judge’s hand only to be rejected. “Just walked up to Judge Kavanaugh as morning session ended,” Guttenberg tweeted. “Put out my hand to introduce myself as Jaime Guttenberg’s dad. He pulled his hand back, turned his back to me and walked away. I guess he did not want to deal with the reality of gun violence.”
Just walked up to Judge Kavanaugh as morning session ended. Put out my hand to introduce myself as Jaime Guttenberg's dad. He pulled his hand back, turned his back to me and walked away. I guess he did not want to deal with the reality of gun violence.
— Fred Guttenberg (@fred_guttenberg) September 4, 2018
A photographer for the Associated Press captured that moment:
Fred Guttenberg, the father of Jamie Guttenberg who was killed in the shooting in Parkland, Fla., left, tries to shake hands with @realDonaldTrump's Supreme Court nom., Brett Kavanaugh, right, during a lunch break. Kavanaugh did not shake his hand. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) @ap pic.twitter.com/smcCGuLT6X
— Andrew Harnik (@andyharnik) September 4, 2018
Kavanaugh’s past opinions and writings indicate that as a Supreme Court justice he would broadly interpret the Second Amendment. The NRA has pledged to spend at least $1 million on TV ads to convince red-state Senate Democrats to vote in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “The NRA strongly supports Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court because he will protect our constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” NRA executive director Chris Cox said last month. “It’s critical that all pro-Second Amendment voters urge their senators to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.”
Later in the afternoon, after a perfunctory round of remarks by friends and supporters, including Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Kavanaugh finally spoke. If his opening statement was any indication, the American public should expect a frustrating few days of hearings in the Senate.
Keeping with the tradition of past nominees to the high court, Kavanaugh more or less presented himself as a plain-vanilla, aw-shucks Boy Scout. He spoke warmly about his family and his love of coaching youth basketball.
“I am an optimist,” Kavanaugh said. “I live on the sunrise side of the mountain, not the sunset side of the mountain … I am optimistic about the future of America and the future of our independent judiciary.” It was almost as if Stuart Smalley were nominated for the highest court in the land.
And on the crucial questions of Kavanaugh’s judicial philosophy, his remarks were — as all such nominees are coached to be nowadays — boilerplate. “My judicial philosophy is straightforward: a judge must be independent and must interpret the law, not make the law,” he said. “A judge must interpret the Constitution as written, informed by history, tradition and precedent.” Then Kavanaugh offered this: “A good judge must be an umpire, a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy.”
Umpires, balls-and-strikes, impartiality: This is the language of Supreme Court nominees unwilling to speak their mind or wade into even the slightest bit of controversy. Chief Justice John Roberts used the same language at his 2005 confirmation hearing — “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them” — and subsequent nominees put forward by Democratic and Republican presidents have adhered to its spirit. Kavanaugh is the latest Supreme Court nominee to cast himself in the role of umpire. Don’t expect revealing answers from him as the senator’s question him in the days ahead.
This post has been updated.