A U.S. Senate panel begins confirmation hearings Tuesday on the nomination of federal appellate court judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, a pivotal life-time appointment President Donald Trump hopes will cement a conservative-leaning majority on the court for years to come.
Kavanaugh will face tough questioning from lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee about his views on a range of issues, including abortion, the powers of a special prosecutor to investigate Trump and Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the conflict between religious beliefs and gay rights, environmental controls and numerous other issues.
The White House is hoping the full Senate will confirm the 53-year-old Kavanaugh to the nine-member court later in September, in time for him to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy when the court opens a new term on October 1.
Kennedy most often sided with the court's four-member conservative bloc, but provided a fifth vote with court liberals to reject efforts to curb abortion and gay rights or limit universities in their use of affirmative action to open up admissions to more racial minorities.
Most independent Supreme Court analysts are predicting, based on hundreds of decisions that Kavanaugh has written at the appellate court level, that Kavanaugh, if confirmed, would most often side with the conservatives, rather than prove to be the swing vote that Kennedy often provided on key issues favoring liberal interpretations of U.S. law.
The eventual full Senate vote on Kavanaugh is expected to be close, with Republicans holding a narrow 50-49 majority with the death of Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. But Arizona Governor Doug Ducey is required by state law to name another Republican to replace McCain and says he expects to do so in the coming days.
If all 51 Republicans support Kavanaugh, he would become the court's 114th justice. At the moment, no Republicans have said they will reject Kavanaugh's nomination and no Democrats have said they will support it.
Democrats are expected to vote overwhelmingly against Kavanaugh's nomination, although three Democratic senators who voted for Trump's first high court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, have yet to voice opposition or support for Kavanaugh, pending the confirmation hearing. Democratic Senators Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Joe Manchin in West Virginia all face tough re-election battles in November in states Trump won easily in the 2016 election and could face pressure from voters to approve the Trump court selection.
Kavanaugh has had a long career in Washington that spans work two decades ago on the impeachment investigation of former President Bill Clinton, as a White House aide to former President George W. Bush, and most recently 12 years on the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington, a court often considered a stepping stone to a Supreme Court seat.
Democrats opposed to Kavanaugh's nomination have complained that Republicans supporting him are withholding key records from Kavanaugh’s time as Bush’s staff secretary, which they wanted to use as a basis to question him.
The Judiciary Committee has received 415,000 pages of documents about the Supreme Court nominee's time in the Bush White House, of which 147,000 are being withheld from public release. In addition, Trump officials say they will not release 101,921 pages of Kavanaugh-related records to the panel because of the sensitivity of the communications.