Voices: Americans grapple with emotional, momentous hearing
By The Associated Press
Thursday, September 27
As the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh about allegations of sexual assault Thursday, AP journalists around the country talked to Americans to gauge their reactions to the dramatic events unfolding. Many who viewed Ford’s testimony — including some Republicans — said they found her credible and consistent. But others continued to believe Kavanaugh’s staunch denials. Echoes of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill abounded, with many recalling that fraught 1991 hearing. Some addressed the momentous nature of the event. “This is history,” said Laura Williams, a law student from Mississippi.
JARRED BY EMOTION:
Jalon Alexander was expecting to hear soft-spoken, deferential testimony when Kavanaugh took the stand. Instead, he said, he heard a fiery, raised voice — and he didn’t find it convincing.
“The more and more I listened to him, there was nothing he said that made me doubt Dr. Ford’s accusation,” he said.
Alexander, a 25-year-old law student at the University of Pittsburgh, identifies as a Democrat but said he began watching Thursday’s proceedings as neither a supporter nor a detractor of the nominee.
That changed with Kavanaugh’s testimony. The student was rattled by the temperament he felt Kavanaugh exhibited and the anger he showed at Democrats while vying for a nonpartisan job.
He even questioned the judge’s displays of emotion. “I didn’t see tears of genuine concern,” Alexander said. “Those tears to me scream, ‘I’m losing something I’m entitled to.’”
Alexander found Ford’s account of Kavanaugh and a friend laughing after the alleged attack the hearing’s most moving moment, and he wondered if that detail might sway Republicans.
“At what cost are we willing to taint the court and to taint the image of what a Supreme Court justice is supposed to represent?” he asked
CONCERNED BY THE TONE:
Philadelphia attorney Shabrei Parker multitasked from her office during Ford’s testimony, jumping from her computer monitor to the television screen to her social media feeds.
Her initial impressions confirmed her worries going into the hearing: It had the feeling of a trial. “It’s supposed to be a space for open-mindedness … to at least give the impression of being transparent,” said Parker, who pointed out that questions from GOP senators came through a prosecutor.
As the hearing progressed, Parker said she felt Ford was getting a fair hearing, but also saw bias, noting that “the tone is one where she’s being expected to prove something.”
Parker, 33, said she believes the biggest impact of the hearing could be far from Washington, on American society and the women’s movement.
“Every system might not crumble because of the first rock that is thrown at it,” she said. “This woman is getting a little bit more of a platform than Anita Hill did, because Anita Hill had to come before her.”
—Errin Haines Whack
REMEMBERING A RAPE:
For Mary Ann Almeida, the hearing brought back painful memories of her own rape as a 14-year-old.
Almeida, who watched from her home in southeastern Kentucky, said every detail of her attack is crisp in her mind — the ropes on her arms, the smell of Old Spice on the assailant, the threat that she should not scream.
“When you’re a true victim, you remember where it happened, you know who was in the room, you also remember every single detail,” she said.
Ford came across as untruthful to Almeida, who said she was a lifelong Democrat but began supporting Republicans with Donald Trump’s candidacy.
Almeida said she doesn’t doubt Ford was victimized, but believes Democrats convinced her to wrongly blame Kavanaugh for what happened. “It hurts true victims everywhere,” she said.
THIS IS HISTORY:
At Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law in New York, a hush settled over the school’s student lounge as the proceedings started.
“Everybody wants to watch this. I mean, this is history,” said Laura Williams, a second-year law student from Senatobia, Mississippi.
Watching Ford testify, student Jordana Balsam said, reminded her of the time she spent volunteering in college to give “safe rides” to female classmates scared to walk alone at night, and of friends who confided about being sexually assaulted.
“I think this is a tremendous step forward for women,” Balsam said. “I think this is….going to be what I’m telling my children about, that I know exactly where I was when Dr. Ford gave her testimony.”
But Sam Erlanger, 25, said the proceedings dashed his hopes for a confirmation process that would appraise Kavanaugh’s background and qualifications in an orderly, timely pursuit of truth. Instead, he said, it devolved into partisan politics, with senators responding to Ford’s testimony with their own agendas in mind.
“Essentially, they’re using her as a pawn,” Erlanger said.
THOUGHTS OF ANITA HILL:
Helen Anderson had Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas on her mind as she watched the hearings from her Sioux City, Iowa, home.
“I’m thinking I don’t want to see that again — a rush to confirmation,” said Anderson, 72, a retired elementary school teacher and registered Democrat. Thomas’s nomination was confirmed in 1991 despite Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment, which he contested.
Anderson said she found Ford’s testimony convincing, adding, “I think she’s given a very strong statement, and I think she’s doing a very good job.”
Anderson noted that certain things had progressed since 1991.
“I remember one of the questions asked of Anita Hill was something like ‘Are you a woman scorned?’” she recalled. “You aren’t going to hear that in this hearing. I think some lessons have been learned since Ms. Hill was treated the way she was.”
Daniela Romero, a registered Republican, watched Ford’s appearance at a student lounge at Florida International University in Miami. “I believe her testimony is true,” she said.
Romero, 22, recounted how one man had sexually assaulted several of her female friends. She described the legal process that followed as “miserable” for the women involved, saying, “It something that affects you for the rest of your life.”
“She will never forget that,” Romero said of Ford.
Romero said she hesitates to believe eyewitness testimonies, citing her background as a psychology major. She described memories as flawed and unreliable, and yet — after hearing Ford speak — said she felt that all signs point to sexual assault.
A ‘WITCH HUNT’:
Connie Cook Saunders, a fitness director for a San Diego athletic club who considers herself a moderate Republican, was able to catch about 15 minutes of the hearing before heading to work. She recorded the rest to watch later.
“I personally feel like it’s a witch hunt,” she said. “It’s political. If it happened to her I am sorry, but it doesn’t make sense to bring it up now. We all did things in high school we don’t want to be judged for now.”
Cook Saunders, 52, said she hoped Kavanaugh would muster more emotion in his Senate appearance than he showed in his Fox interview, where she felt he was too poker-faced.
And she, too, evoked the Thomas-Hill hearing.
“I believed Anita,” she said. “I think she was a more credible witness so far from what I’ve seen than Ford is.”
AGONIZING TO WATCH:
For Elizabeth Jacobson, listening to Ford’s testimony was emotionally exhausting. “To watch someone have to recount something that traumatic, I feel very on edge for her,” said Jacobson, 24, of Minneapolis.
Jacobson, a first-year law student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law who identifies as a Democrat, watched the hearing with colleagues in a classroom. She said she found the opening by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley frustrating, adding, “He didn’t uphold his duty to make sure that it was a very fair and neutral introduction.”
Jacobson said she was nervous before the hearing started.
“It could be a really important step forward — or it could be a very large wall in some ways, another hurdle, another obstacle,” she said. When asked what she would like to see in the hearing, she cited “respect,” saying that challenging Ford’s credibility could discourage others from coming forward.
One of Jacobson’s close friends was sexually assaulted in high school, an experience the friend said would scar her for life. In that context, Jacobson said, “something that you do in high school can stick with someone else for the rest of their lives, and in some ways you should be held accountable for the decisions you made.”
TRYING TO KEEP AN OPEN MIND:
Republican strategist Jennifer Jacobs, watching the hearing from her home in San Diego, said she found herself struck by what she deemed Ford’s sincerity. But she remained uncertain as to whether it was “absolutely” Kavanaugh who committed the alleged assault.
“I think her sincerity is definitely playing heavy on my mind and my heart,” Jacobs said, adding that she believed “something happened to her in her past that has caused her a lot of pain. I don’t think that can be disputed.”
“The last thing I want to do is take away from the pain a woman has,” Jacobs said. “I’m still on the fence about, do I believe that this was absolutely this person.”
She added: “I am doing my best, 100 percent, to keep an open mind.”
PROTESTS IN NORTH CAROLINA
Across North Carolina, protesters gathered outside the offices of the state’s Republican U.S. Senators in three different cities to demonstrate against Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
In Raleigh, a crowd of about 30 gathered outside Sen. Thom Tillis’ regional office, blocks from the state capitol.
Penney De Pas, an artist and retired state employee, called the protests part of a larger movement on the part of Americans fed up with men in positions of power abusing their status to get away with sexual assault.
“You have a group of baby boomers and Gen Xers and millennials … who are like ‘We’re not going to put up with this anymore,’” De Pas said.
She said the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing particularly hit close to home because she was sexually assaulted as a child.
Trump urges Senate to vote after Kavanaugh’s fierce defense
By JONATHAN LEMIRE, ZEKE MILLER and CATHERINE LUCEY
Friday, September 28
WASHINGTON (AP) — Glued to high-stakes testimony on his Supreme Court nominee, President Donald Trump and his allies were shaken by Christine Blasey Ford’s emotional appearance on Capitol Hill. But they stood by Judge Brett Kavanaugh after his forceful pushback against the woman who accused him of sexual misconduct.
Trump missed hardly a moment of the proceedings, relying on DVRs to keep up on the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday from his private office on Air Force One as he traveled from New York to Washington, and continued monitoring back at the White House, where Ford’s voice echoed from TVs around the building.
Within moments of the eight-hour proceedings concluding, Trump tweeted his approval of Kavanaugh’s performance and called on the Senate to move swiftly to a vote. “His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting,” Trump said. “Democrats’ search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!”
Ford’s tearful recounting of allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school led Trump to express sympathy for Kavanaugh and his family for having to listen to the testimony, according to two Republicans close to the White House but not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations. They added that Trump expressed some frustration at the process — and the staff work — that led Kavanaugh to this point.
After seeing Ford’s powerful testimony, White House aides and allies expressed concern that Kavanaugh, whose nomination already seemed to be teetering, would have an uphill climb to deliver a strong enough showing to match hers.
White House officials believe Kavanaugh’s passionate denials of Ford’s claims, including the judge’s tearful description of the impact the accusations had on his family, met the challenge. A White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly said the West Wing saw the judge’s opening statement as “game changing” and said Trump appeared to be reacting positively.
Trump told associates after the hearing that he liked Kavanaugh’s fighting attitude and was critical of Democrats who he sees as politicizing the process, said a person familiar with his thinking who was not authorized to disclose private conversations. He was happy with Republicans on the committee, though he was not impressed with the questioning from an outside female prosecutor. While he acknowledges the vote will be close, he currently thinks they will get there.
Signaling the continued White House support for Kavanaugh, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted praise for Sen. Lindsey Graham after the South Carolina Republican railed against Democrats, accusing them of treating Kavanaugh “despicably.” Sanders tweeted that Graham “has more decency and courage than every Democrat member of the committee combined. God bless him.”
Trump’s son, Donald Jr., also tweeted his review: “I love Kavanaugh’s tone. It’s nice to see a conservative man fight for his honor and his family against a 35 year old claim with ZERO evidence and lots of holes that amounts to nothing more than a political hit job by the Dems.”
Going into the hearing, Trump had grown increasingly frustrated, angry at members of his staff — and, in particular, White House counsel Don McGahn — for not better managing the confirmation process for his second Supreme Court nominee. McGahn, who is set to depart his post in coming weeks, had advocated for Kavanaugh, seeing his confirmation as the crowning achievement of his tenure — and part of a decades-long effort to install more conservatives on the high court.
Trump has also criticized Republican leaders in Congress for not speeding the process along, leading to days’ worth of revelations against Kavanaugh. White House aides have bemoaned the drip-drip-drip nature of the emerging allegations and thought a faster process could have avoided Ford’s testimony.
As the day unfolded, White House aides and allies offered a mix of optimism and frustration. Viewing the hearing from their desks, some aides expressed concerns that Ford appeared highly credible, though others noted there were still gaps in her decades-old story.
How the proceedings were playing out on television was a key anxiety. Some White House officials were not pleased with the questioning from Phoenix prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, saying she did not effectively target the weak spots in Ford’s narrative and worrying that the Democrats had seized the moment.
But many felt the proceeding took a turn once Kavanaugh appeared. Aides said they thought Kavanaugh was effectively fighting back and expressed optimism he could survive the process.
Trump has also told allies that he wished Kavanaugh’s Fox News interview Monday had gone better, believing it was a missed opportunity to change the momentum around the story, according to the two Republicans and another outside adviser. And White House allies noted the importance of how Fox would cover the proceedings in shaping Trump’s reactions.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed from Washington.
On the Supreme Court, difficult nominations have led to historical injustices
September 28, 2018
Professor of History, Arizona State University
Calvin Schermerhorn does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Arizona State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Far from being unusual, the hurried and partisan Supreme Court confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh mirrors several notable examples of similarly politicized confirmations in U.S. history.
Those conflicts, which ultimately placed justices on the court, yielded some of the most damaging civil rights decisions in our nation’s history.
Unlike any other branch of government, Supreme Court justices do not have to face voters at the polls. They have no term limits. Yet the high court is the final arbiter of constitutional rights and protections.
Controversial appointees who were rammed through hearings, or political careerists nominated for strategic reasons and confirmed despite scant vetting, handed down decisions that expanded slavery and rolled back civil rights.
Bad processes do not by themselves yield bad decisions. There have also been thinly vetted justices who have protected and extended civil rights, but such cases are in a minority.
Of course, all Supreme Court nominations are political because they embody the strategic priorities of the president. And the required Senate confirmation of a nominee may well be a “vapid and hollow charade,” in Justice Elena Kagan’s words, since partisan support matters over merit.
But as history shows, judicious confirmation hearings are vital to vetting a lifetime appointment that can affect citizens’ right to vote, access to courts, or the limits of presidential power.
Bad process, bad decisions
Roger B. Taney was a partisan warrior who helped President Andrew Jackson kill the Bank of the United States by illegally draining its funds. Congress refused to confirm Taney as treasury secretary and censured Jackson.
So Jackson named Taney to the Supreme Court. The Senate refused to confirm him. The next year, after Jackson got a Democratic Senate, he renominated him, this time as chief justice. Taney was pushed hurriedly through confirmation.
The Taney Court was staunchly pro-slavery, rejecting states’ rights when Northerners asserted them to oppose slavery.
Taney’s most sweeping pro-slavery decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857 held that African-Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” The decision ruled that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in any U.S. territory. Dred Scott is widely considered to be one of the worst decisions ever made by the court.
A critical time
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was able to replace the Taney Court with corporation-friendly Republicans like Samuel F. Miller of Iowa, whom he nominated in 1862. Lincoln’s court strategy was to appoint Republicans who would endorse presidential powers in a war to save the Union.
Like Taney, Miller had owned slaves but freed them. And he was a party loyalist. As Miller’s biographer claims, he “sought results first and then found the arguments to justify them.”
Miller’s appointment came just as Lincoln was contemplating the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln could have asked Miller his views on the scope of black freedom, but he never did. He never even met Miller. And with no opposition in Congress, the Senate confirmed Miller in just hours.
Miller’s appointment may have been shrewd politics but it hollowed out the Civil War’s crowning achievement, the abolition of slavery and constitutional protections for African-American citizenship, including equal protection of the laws and the right to vote.
It was Miller’s majority ruling in the 5-4 Slaughterhouse Cases in 1873 that had the effect of limiting civil rights protections for African-Americans under the 14th Amendment, which extended citizenship to African-Americans and forbade states to deny them equal protection of the laws. The ruling in effect gave states sole power over areas of citizenship not explicitly covered in the federal Constitution. That, in turn, ultimately led to the growth of racist Jim Crow laws in states.
President Ulysses Grant’s two nominees were also pushed through hastily and had an oversized impact on civil rights.
Those appointments – conservative pro-business Republican Joseph P. Bradley and political hack Morrison Waite – unwittingly undermined Grant’s own Justice Department’s civil rights enforcement.
In 1870 Grant appointed Bradley specifically to help business interests concerned about recent decisions that they believed harmed them. Bradley faced scant opposition from a majority-Republican Senate in bed with railroad and other corporate interests.
Four years later, Grant picked Waite, a crony of Grant’s Ohio friends, who had zero judicial experience. Called a “national nonentity” by a court historian, Waite’s appointment surprised everyone, including Waite. The Senate confirmed him without debate.
The unintended consequences of these two overtly political nominations became clear in U.S. v. Cruikshank, an 1876 court decision.
In April 1873, up to 150 African-Americans were murdered by whites in a conflict over two competing Louisiana governments. Among those whites was William Cruikshank.
Cruikshank and others who participated in the massacre were charged and convicted in federal court of civil rights violations under the Enforcement Act of 1870. That act made it a federal crime to violate civil rights and was passed with the intention of putting teeth in the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection of the laws and due process. The case considered by the court was an appeal of those initial convictions.
Justice Waite ruled that the 14th Amendment’s civil rights provisions, including the equal protections of the laws and right to due process, did not apply to the victims of the Colfax Massacre.
Justice Bradley concurred in the ruling, clearing Cruikshank. Indeed, Bradley declared that none of the Colfax Massacre defendants were alleged to have “committed the acts complained of with a design to deprive the injured persons of their rights on account of their race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Bradley and Waite’s responses constituted willful blindness to a naked act of racial terrorism. And these decisions gutted the 14th Amendment’s civil rights provisions, leading to the swift and violent rise of Jim Crow.
Bradley went on to rule in 1883 that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which outlawed racial discrimination in public facilities, was unconstitutional. He did this at a time when blacks were being denied the right to vote, barred from businesses and murdered with impunity. Bradley tutted that with his ruling a black citizen “ceases to be the special favorite of the laws.” And the law ended protection for African-Americans from segregation in schools, theaters and even cemeteries.
It would be 74 years before Congress passed another civil rights act.
Not all justices involved in partisan nominations, or who were poorly vetted, handed down dreadful rulings.
Louis D. Brandeis’ nomination in 1916 led to a bitter partisan brawl infused with anti-Semitism. One witness at his confirmation accused him of “infidelity,” and another characterized Brandeis as “duplicitous”.
Yet Brandeis became one of the nation’s most renowned Supreme Court justices, standing up for free speech in Whitney v. California in 1927 and dissenting in Olmstead v. United States the next year against warrantless wiretapping.
Harold H. Burton was a surprise nomination when Democrat Harry Truman nominated the Republican senator from Ohio in 1945. The Senate dispensed with hearings and confirmed Burton without debate. But Burton defied expectations, shaping the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) ruling that desegregated schools and overturned the Jim Crow doctrine of “separate but equal.”
Back to the 19th century
More recently, contested nominations have revived the 19th-century practice of ramming through partisans whose decisions undermine civil rights.
The 1991 Clarence Thomas nomination evokes that legacy. With a thin resume, partisan credentials, and his nomination hastily pushed through by George H. W. Bush’s administration, Thomas won a lifetime appointment by a two-vote margin after an acrimonious hearing involving his alleged sexual harrassment.
Justice Thomas is arguably among the most conservative justices. He joined Chief Justice John Roberts in the landmark 5-4 Shelby County v. Holder decision gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, like that of Morrison Waite, Joseph P. Bradley and Roger B. Taney, has been rushed. A partisan warrior, he has been hastily advanced, with the majority of his papers withheld and sexual assault allegations overtaking his hearings.
As American history has shown, this process comes with profound risks.