Brett Kavanaugh’s opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday was unlike anything in the Supreme Court’s history. In what can only be described as an angry and vengeful tirade, he lashed out at the American left, Democratic lawmakers, and “friends of the Clintons” for the attacks and allegations that he’s faced since his nomination to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. It was an astonishingly partisan performance for a sitting federal judge, let alone one who hopes to serve on the nation’s highest court.
“This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups,” he told senators. “This is a circus.”
Kavanaugh then suggested that there would be dire consequences for those groups at some point in the future. “This grotesque and coordinated character assassination will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from serving our country,” Kavanaugh said. “And as we all know, in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around.” After that assertion, imagine being a Democratic official or liberal interest group who brings a case before the court and loses it in a 5-4 decision with Kavanaugh in the majority.
This statement cannot be squared with what Kavanaugh said during his opening statement to the senators just weeks ago. “The Supreme Court must never be viewed as a partisan institution,” he said. “The justices on the Supreme Court do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle. They do not caucus in separate rooms. If confirmed to the court, I would be part of a team of nine, committed to deciding cases according to the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
It’s worth noting that Kavanaugh is not just a Supreme Court nominee. He’s currently a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and if the Senate decides to reject his nomination, he’ll remain there. Kavanaugh is therefore required to abide by the code of conduct for federal judges, even outside the courtroom. “A judge should be faithful to, and maintain professional competence in, the law and should not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism,” the code states.
Two women have publicly alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted them in high school and in college, respectively. A third woman has said Kavanaugh was present at a beach party in Maryland in high school where she was gang-raped, though she does not allege that he took part in the attack. Kavanaugh has denied all wrongdoing, and he’s certainly entitled to defend himself. But he went far beyond that and cast the allegations, without evidence, as part of a grand conspiracy against him.
Kavanaugh undermined his credibility as a fair-minded jurist by indulging in some imaginative leaps to attack Democratic senators. “The behavior of several Democratic members of the committee in my hearing a few weeks ago was an embarrassment,” he said. “But at least it was just a good old-fashioned attempt at borking. Those efforts didn’t work. When I did at least okay enough at the hearings that it looked like I might actually get confirmed, a new tactic was needed. Some of you were lying in wait and had it ready. This first allegation was held in secret for weeks by a Democratic member of this committee and this staff. It would be needed only if you couldn’t take me out in the merits.”
He was referring to California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who learned about Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation in a letter from her during the summer. Blasey testified that she declined to take the allegations public when Kavanaugh’s confirmation appeared certain. Feinstein pledged she would keep them confidential. Nonetheless, rumors about Blasey’s letter began to surface after Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. (He did not blame Blasey, saying the letter was released “over Dr. Ford’s wishes.”) The Intercept was the first news outlet to report on the letter’s existence. After Kavanaugh’s testimony, D.C. bureau chief Ryan Grim said on Twitter that the letter wasn’t leaked to them by Feinstein’s staff.
In 1991, Clarence Thomas gave a similarly defiant opening statement to the committee. He described the firestorm surrounding Anita Hill’s allegations that he sexually harassed her as “Kafkaesque” and a “grave and irreparable injustice” to him and his family. “No job is worth what I’ve been through—no job. No horror in my life has been so debilitating,” he told senators, adding that “from my standpoint as a black American, as far as I’m concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.”
Thomas’s words, as vivid and severe as they were, did not constitute an overtly partisan attack—much as he may have wanted to do so. He came pretty close in an autobiography he released in 2007, where he broadly alleged that liberal groups had weaponized Hill’s allegations because of Thomas’s perceived views on abortion. But he managed to show at least a measure of restraint at the time. Kavanaugh, by comparison, did not. His behavior on Thursday casts serious doubt on whether he has the temperament to sit on the Supreme Court.
Republicans who support Kavanaugh’s nomination frequently touted his twelve years of service on the D.C. Circuit. But Democrats focused on his years as a political operative for the Republican Party and the conservative movement—first as one of the inquisitors on Ken Starr’s Whitewater investigation into the Clinton White House, then as a Bush White House staffer for five years. They worried that he would continue that work if placed on the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh seemed to validate that fear in the most visceral way possible on Thursday.