By MARK SHERMAN , Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh promised Tuesday to be a “team player” if confirmed to the closely divided court, declaring that he will be a “pro-law judge” who won’t decide cases based on his personal views.
With Republicans hoping to move the Supreme Court to the right for years to come, President Donald Trump’s nominee, who has a solidly conservative record, declared he would be even-handed in his approach to the law.
“A good judge must be an umpire_a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy,” Kavanaugh said in prepared opening remarks. “I am not a pro-plaintiff or pro-defendant judge. I am not a pro-prosecution or pro-defense judge.”
“I would always strive to be a team player on the Team of Nine,” he added.
The Supreme Court is more often thought of as nine separate law firms, rather than a team. And on the most contentious cases, the court tends to split into two teams, conservative and liberal. But the justices often say they seek consensus when they can, and they like to focus on how frequently they reach unanimous decisions.
Kavanaugh, 53, has served for the past 12 years on the appeals court in Washington, D.C., which is considered the second most important court in the country after the Supreme Court. His conservative record includes a dissenting opinion last year that would have denied immediate access to an abortion for an immigrant teenager in federal custody.
Kavanaugh worked in key White House positions when George W. Bush was president and was a member of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s legal team that investigated President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, leading to Clinton’s impeachment.
As a young lawyer, Kavanaugh worked for Justice Anthony Kennedy, the man he would replace on the high court. Kennedy retired at the end of July. Trump’s first nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, also was a Kennedy law clerk the same year as Kavanaugh.
The first day of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings Tuesday will also feature opening statements from senators. When he was sworn in as an appellate judge in 2006, Kavanaugh called an independent judiciary “the crown jewel of our constitutional democracy.”
Questioning will begin on Wednesday, and votes in committee and on the Senate floor could occur later in September. If all goes as Republicans plan, Kavanaugh could be on the bench when the court begins its new term on Oct. 1.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who is the committee chairman, has called Kavanaugh “one of the most qualified nominees ever picked for the court.” The American Bar Association has given Kavanaugh its highest rating, well qualified.
Monday night, some 42,000 documents pertaining to Kavanaugh’s work with previous administrations were released to the committee. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer complained it was impossible to go through them in time. Democrats have also complained that they have not received all relevant documents.
Rebuffed in their request to delay the hearing, Democrats are planning to shine a light on Kavanaugh’s views on abortion, executive power and whether Trump could be forced to testify as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
“I remain troubled by your view of executive power,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a committee member, wrote Friday in an open letter to Kavanaugh. “I am not satisfied with your responses to me during our private meeting, and I believe that you owe the Committee and the American people more thorough, candid answers during your hearing next week.”
Many Democratic senators already have announced their intention to vote against Kavanaugh and many Republicans have likewise signaled their support. A handful of Democrats seeking re-election in states Trump carried in 2016 could vote for Kavanaugh.
If no Democrat ultimately supports the nomination, the Republicans have no margin for error in a Senate they control by 50-49. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are the only two Republicans even remotely open to voting against Kavanaugh, though neither has said she would do so. Abortion rights supporters are trying to appeal to those senators by focusing on concerns that Kavanaugh could vote to limit abortion rights or even overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling from 1973 that first established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.
Democrats have been under intense pressure from liberal voters to resist Trump, and many remain irate, even two years later, over the treatment of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, who was denied so much as a hearing last year by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Kavanaugh, in his statement Tuesday, gave a shout-out to Garland, “our superb chief judge.” Garland is the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals, on which Kavanaugh has served.
But Democrats are powerless to delay a vote on Kavanaugh since McConnell led Republicans, during the Gorsuch nomination, in eliminating the 60-vote filibuster threshold that had been in place for Supreme Court nominations.
The filibuster rule required 60 of the 100 votes to advance a bill or nomination. That’s in contrast to the simple 51-vote majority that applies in most cases.