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Kavanaugh touts independence after contentious start to confirmation hearing

The Supreme Court nominee's confirmation began with lawmaker protests and hearing room chaos Tuesday morning.
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WASHINGTON — Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, said Tuesday that his rulings as a federal appeals court judge were uninformed by "personal or policy preferences," as the opening day of his confirmation hearing was marked by dissent and disruption.

"My judicial philosophy is straightforward," Kavanaugh said in his opening remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee. "A judge must be independent and must interpret the law, not make the law. A judge must interpret statutes as written. A judge must interpret the Constitution as written, informed by history and tradition and precedent."

He added that "in each case, I have followed the law. I don't decide cases based on personal or policy preferences."

The beginning of the nearly eight-hour hearing quickly descended into chaos Tuesday morning as Democrats executed a coordinated effort to adjourn and postpone it, aided by the shouts of protesters who were then escorted out. The fireworks, which succeeded in stalling the proceedings for more than hour, followed the late-night release of tens of thousands of documents related to Kavanaugh's time in the George W. Bush White House.

Democrats expressed outrage about the rushed nature of the process as well as to the thousands of pages withheld by the Trump administration, contrasting the speed of Kavanaugh's confirmation proceeding before November's midterms with the Republican stonewalling of Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's high court nominee who was never granted a hearing.

“What are we trying to hide? Why are we rushing?” asked Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Moments after the hearing opened, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said: "The committee received just last night, less than 15 hours ago, 42,000 pages of documents that we have not had an opportunity to read, review or analyze. We cannot possibly move forward with this hearing.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., repeatedly called for the panel to adjourn to give senators time to read those new documents. The committee chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, dismissed those calls, at one point asking in frustration just how long they planned to keep raising complaints.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, likened Democratic objections and frequent protester interruptions to "mob rule."

Democrats ultimately relented, allowing the panel to move on, though still more protesters were determined to be heard.

Concerns, and assurances

In opening statements, Republicans defended Kavanaugh from Democrats' attacks and assured him that he would be confirmed, while Democrats previewed lines of questioning around Kavanaugh's views on abortion rights, gun rights and executive privilege.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said that the hearing is "not about the qualifications of the nominee," nor about documents, because Kavanaugh is "unquestionably qualified" and produced a voluminous number of pages in response to the panel's questionnaire.

The Texas senator, up for re-election in November, accused Democrats of trying to relitigate the 2016 presidential election through Kavanaugh's confirmation process.

In her opening statement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the committee's ranking member, said that while Kavanaugh has reportedly described the 1973 Supreme Court landmark ruling Roe v. Wade as "settled law," she said that "the question is really: Do you believe that it's correct law?"

Feinstein also expressed concern that Kavanaugh concluded in a case on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that banning assault weapons is unconstitutional because she said that he argued that those firearms have not been historically banned.

"You will likely be the deciding vote on fundamental issues," Feinstein said.

Several Democrats expressed deep concern about Kavanaugh’s views on executive privilege.

Blumenthal said that Trump is an "unindicted co-conspirator who has nominated a potential justice who will cast the swing vote on issues relating to his possible criminal culpability — in fact, whether he is required to obey a subpoena to appear before a grand jury, whether he is required to testify in a prosecution of his friends, associates or other officials in his administration and whether he is required to stand trial" as president.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, however, assured Kavanaugh that he will be confirmed by the Senate and he slammed Democrats for allegedly painting the nominee as "one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse."

Kavanaugh, 53, is expected to face questions over the next two days about whether he would overturn longstanding precedents, including Roe v. Wade. Democrats are also expected to grill Kavanaugh on his stance on executive power, his experience working with Clinton special prosecutor Ken Starr, and his time serving as White House staff secretary to Bush.

Senate Democrats had called for a delay in Kavanaugh's confirmation last month when Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violation and fraud charges, and when the president declined to rule out a pardon for Paul Manafort after the former Trump campaign manager's conviction on tax fraud and other felony charges.

They expressed concern about Kavanaugh's comments about executive power — which recently included the view that that a 1978 ruling that created a system for independent counsels to investigate government officials for federal crimes should be overturned — because they said he could help protect the president on several fronts, particularly the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Trump nominated Kavanaugh in early July, not long after Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had been considered the court's swing vote, announced his retirement.

On Friday, the Trump administration announced that the White House pushed for the withholding of 100,000 documents from Kavanaugh’s White House record from Congress.

“We’re witnessing a Friday night document massacre," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement on Friday. "President Trump’s decision to step in at the last moment and hide 100,000 pages of Judge Kavanaugh’s records from the American public is not only unprecedented in the history of Supreme Court nominations, it has all the makings of a cover up."

Then, late Monday night, Bush's lawyer turned over 42,000 pages of documents from the nominee's White House service, sparking an angry response from Schumer, who called yet again for a delay.

“Not a single senator will be able to review these records before tomorrow,” he tweeted. The majority staff tweeted overnight that they had completed their review of all the documents.

The Judiciary Committee has 430,000 documents on a confidential basis, which have been reviewed by Grassley's staff. Of that batch, 287,000 have been made public, with Democrats expressing concern that documents relating to Kavanaugh’s job as Bush's staff secretary were not being handed over to lawmakers. The panel has asked that the National Archives produce presidential records from Kavanaugh’s service as an executive branch lawyer and when he worked for Starr. Bush is also providing records on an expedited basis.

The final day of the hearings is expected to focus on panels of legal experts who have been invited by both the majority and minority. The witnesses invited by Democrats include John Dean, President Richard M. Nixon’s White House counsel, who is expected to discuss the abuse of executive power.

Senate Republicans are aiming to confirm Kavanaugh by the end of September, in time for the start of the Supreme Court’s next term in October. If every Democrat votes against him, Republicans can’t afford a single defection, especially now after the death of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The red state Democrats up for re-election in November will be key in determining Kavanaugh's confirmation.