Democrats protest as U.S. high court nominee's chaotic hearing opens

by Reuters
Tuesday, 4 September 2018 14:33 GMT

(Adds Grassley refusal to hold adjournment vote and Feinstein, Blumenthal comments)

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON, Sept 4 (Reuters) - The Senate confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court pick, opened in chaos on Tuesday, as Democrats complained about Republicans blocking access to documents stemming from the nominee's previous work in the White House under President George W. Bush.

News photographers clicked pictures of a smiling Kavanaugh as he entered the hearing room. But moments after the Judiciary Committee's Republican chairman Chuck Grassley opened the hearing, Democrats protested the withholding of the documents and asked to have the proceedings adjourned.

Several protesters also disrupted the opening of the hearing, with one shouting "this is a travesty of justice." Security personnel removed a succession of demonstrators from the room.

"We cannot possibly move forward. We have not had an opportunity to have a meaningful hearing," Democratic Senator Kamala Harris said, while Democratic Senator Cory Booker appealed to Grassley's "sense of decency and integrity."

"What are we trying to hide? Why are we rushing?" asked Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.

Grassley ignored the Democrats' request to halt the hearing, saying it was "out of order" and accused the Democrats of obstruction. Republican Senator John Cornyn accused Democrats of trying to conduct the hearing by "mob rule."

Democrats have demanded in vain to see documents relating to the three years Kavanaugh, nominated by Trump for a lifetime job on the top U.S. court, spent as staff secretary to Bush, a job that involved managing paper flow from advisers to the president. Kavanaugh held that job from 2003 to 2006.

"I think we ought to give the American people the opportunity to hear whether Judge Kavanaugh should be on the Supreme Court," Grassley said.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal called the hearing a "charade" and "a mockery of our norms."

Republicans also have released some but not all of the existing documents concerning Kavanaugh's two years as a lawyer in the White House Counsel's Office prior to become staff secretary.

If confirmed by a Senate controlled narrowly by Trump's fellow Republicans, Kavanaugh is expected to move the high court - which already had a conservative majority - further to the right. Senate Democratic leaders have vowed a fierce fight to try to block the confirmation of the conservative federal appeals court judge.

Kavanaugh sat, fingers intertwined, quietly staring ahead at the committee members as audience members screamed while being dragged out of the hearing room.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee's senior Democrat, said 93 percent of documents from Kavanaugh's White House tenure had not been given to senators and 96 percent not released to the public. "I really regret this but I think you have to understand the frustration" among Democrats," she said.

Republicans have said that Democrats have more than enough documents to assess Kavanaugh's record, including his 12 years of judicial opinions as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. They have accused Democrats of seeking to delay the hearing for purely political reasons.

Republicans hold a slim Senate majority so they can approve Kavanaugh if they stay united. So far, there were no signs of defections, with the Senate likely to vote by the end of the month. The court begins its next term in October.

The hearing gives Democrats a chance to make their case against Kavanaugh ahead of November's congressional elections.

'AN UMPIRE'

"A good judge must be an umpire - a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy," Kavanaugh said in written remarks released in advance of the hearing. "I don't decide cases based on personal or policy preferences."

Trump nominated Kavanaugh, 53, to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement on June 27. He is Trump's second nominee to the Supreme Court. Trump last year appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, part of his push to make the federal judiciary more conservative.

Liberals are concerned Kavanaugh could provide a decisive fifth vote on the nine-justice court to overturn or weaken Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide.

Kennedy was a solid conservative but sided with the court's liberals on some issues, including abortion and gay rights.

Beyond social issues, Kavanaugh is also likely to face questions about his views on investigating sitting presidents and the ongoing probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Kavanaugh spent four years working for Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who investigated former Democratic President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Kavanaugh also spent more than five years working for Bush.

As a judge, he has amassed a solidly conservative record since 2006 on the influential Washington-based appeals court.

With Senator John McCain's death, the Republican Senate majority shrank to 50-49, but McCain's replacement is likely be seated before a final vote on Kavanaugh, restoring the majority to 51-49 and providing the votes needed for confirmation.

Liberal activists have pinned their slim hopes to block Kavanaugh on two Republican senators who support abortion rights: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. So far, neither has indicated likelihood to oppose Kavanaugh.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung, Amanda Becker, Lisa Lambert; Editing by Will Dunham)

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