WASHINGTON - After spending 12 hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh returns Thursday for another round of questioning as senators decide whether to support his bid to become the ninth member on the nation’s highest court.
President Donald Trump, who nominated Kavanaugh in July, says he is pleased with the way the hearings are going so far.
During Wednesday’s session, Kavanaugh pledged judicial independence from Trump.
‘An independent judge’?
“I’m an independent judge,” Kavanaugh said when asked by Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch for assurances that, if confirmed to the high court, he would not be swayed by the views or interests of the president.
“I owe my loyalty to the Constitution, and the Constitution establishes me as an independent judge, bound to follow the law as written,” the 53-year-old federal appellate judge added.
Kavanaugh asserted “no one is above the law in our constitutional system” and that “no matter your station in life, no matter your position in government, it’s all equal justice under law.” But he declined to say whether a sitting president, like all other citizens, must respond to a subpoena to provide testimony.
“I can’t give you an answer on that hypothetical question,” the nominee said.
The issue has particular relevance given Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s continuing probe of the 2016 Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russia. Mueller has not subpoenaed Trump, but it remains an option in his ongoing investigation of Russian meddling in the election.
In the 1990s, as an attorney, Kavanaugh took part in an investigation of then-president Bill Clinton that compelled Clinton to testify. Years later, having served in the George W. Bush administration, Kavanaugh wrote that presidents should be shielded from legal proceedings while in office.
Nominated to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Kavanaugh told lawmakers he has not hesitated to make unpopular rulings in the past. He cited his opinion in a case releasing Osama bin Laden’s former chauffeur, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, from detention at the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“You’ll never have a nominee who’s ruled for a more unpopular defendant,” Kavanaugh said. He said judges should not make decisions based on who people are, but “whether they have the law on their side. My personal beliefs are not relevant.”
While Republican senators posed many questions on Kavanaugh’s overall judicial philosophy, Democrats zeroed in on hot-button issues from gun control to abortion rights in America.
The committee’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, sought assurances that the nominee views as settled law the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, establishing abortion rights nationwide.
“It’s an important precedent of the Supreme Court that’s been reaffirmed many times,” Kavanaugh said. “I understand the importance of the issue. I don’t live in a bubble, I live in the real world.”
He described a 1992 decision reaffirming the original ruling as “precedent upon precedent.” He said Americans “need to know the law is predictable. Precedent is the foundation of our system.”
Numerous women’s groups are opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination, fearing he would vote with other conservative justices to restrict or eliminate abortion rights.
Protesters periodically interrupted the hearing. One repeatedly shouted, “Sham president, sham justice.”
If approved by the Republican-led committee, Kavanaugh’s nomination would go to the full Senate, where Republicans will hold a slim 51-49 majority. So far, no Republicans have said they plan to vote against Kavanaugh. Dozens of Democrats have announced their opposition.