WASHINGTON (AP) — Judge Brett Kavanaugh has a long record of judicial and executive branch service to recommend him as President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court. And that’s part of the problem in getting him confirmed by the Senate.
Democrats are demanding to see the conservative appellate court judge’s lengthy paper trail before they even start meeting with him, let alone casting their votes on a lifetime appointment that could shift the court rightward.
The documents extend far beyond the 53-year-old’s nearly 300 rulings as a judge on the circuit court of appeals.
The Democrats are demanding access to paperwork from Kavanaugh’s tenure as staff secretary in the George W. Bush White House, on the 2000 election presidential recount and on Special Counsel Kenneth Starr’s probe of Bill Clinton. The tally could stretch at least 1 million pages. The paper chase has become a game of high-stakes political strategy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to have Kavanaugh confirmed for the start of the Supreme Court session Oct. 1 and to serve up a midterm election boost for Republicans in November. But the Democratic search for documents could complicate that timeline.
McConnell spent this week’s closed-door GOP policy lunch outlining the schedule ahead, senators said. With Republicans holding just a slim 51-seat majority, they are under pressure from conservatives to confirm the nominee, who could tilt the court’s decisions for a generation to come. He would take the place of retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a swing vote.
“We’ve already begun to hear rumblings from our Democratic colleagues that they’re going to want to see every scrap of paper that ever came across Brett Kavanaugh’s desk,” the No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, told reporters.
But the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, said in light of this week’s “disturbing events” — namely, Trump’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — it’s all the more important to thoroughly vet the president’s nominee.
“It is, ultimately, the Supreme Court that will have the last word on whether a sitting president is above the law,” she said. “We — the Senate — and the American public must know where Judge Kavanaugh stands. … And this starts with having access to Judge Kavanaugh’s documents from his time in the White House and as a political operative.”
At particular issue in the document fight are the years the Yale-educated Kavanaugh spent at the White House as staff secretary for Bush — a job that touches almost every slip of paper that makes it to the president’s desk — as well as his work during the Clinton probe and the Florida election recount.
Kavanaugh served in the White House Counsel’s Office under Bush beginning in 2001. He told lawmakers in a May 2006 confirmation hearing for his current job that he provided advice on ethics and separation of power issues, the nomination of judges, and legislation dealing with tort reform and a federal backstop to limit insurers’ losses in the event of a terror attack.
Kavanaugh described the staff secretary position as being “an honest broker for the president,” someone who tried to ensure that the president received a range of policy views on issues of the day in an even-handed way. Democrats say his policy-making role was more substantial than that.
The Judiciary Committee is negotiating how much information will be pulled for the confirmation process. The task is daunting, involving a universe of paperwork that will need to be culled from the National Archives, the Bush library and others, and reviewed by stables of attorneys. Talks are still at the early stages.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who said this will be his 15th Supreme Court confirmation hearing, promised the “most transparent and thorough process” of any of them.
But he also warned against dragging it out. “I will not allow taxpayers to be on the hook for a government-funded fishing expedition,” Grassley said.
He cited the volume of records reviewed in recent Supreme Court confirmations: 173,000 pages of documents for the confirmation of Elena Kagan in 2010, and 182,000 pages for the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch last year. The citation no doubt was by design, showing what the Senate has considered appropriate in the past.
Republicans say dragging out the process might backfire on Democrats if they push the votes too close to the midterm election.
But Democrats appear willing to take that risk. They note that the more information that came out about one of Trump’s nominees to the circuit court, Ryan Bounds, the less support he had. McConnell stunned senators this week when he withdrew Bounds from consideration.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.