WASHINGTON — Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the Supreme Court is not as divided as members of the public might think, praising his liberal colleagues and highlighting rulings in which the justices were not divided along ideological lines in a recent public appearance.
Kavanaugh spoke at an event at Notre Dame Law school this week, a video of which was made public Thursday, amid a debate about whether the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, is in danger of losing its legitimacy by moving sharply to the right.
The court in its previous term, which ended in June, faced sharp criticism for several rulings, most notably the decision to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade precedent, which found that there was a constitutional right to abortion.
"There are great relations among all nine justices both personally and professionally. We only get tough cases, and we disagree on some of those. I think that's more nuanced than it is sometimes portrayed," he said.
Kavanaugh had special praise for the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the recently retired liberal Justice Stephen Breyer and Breyer’s successor, the liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, saying she “has hit the ground running" and is "thoroughly prepared."
Ginsburg and Breyer "couldn't have been better at welcoming me to the court," Kavanaugh said, referring to his nomination by then-President Donald Trump in 2018. He joined the court after having barely survived a Senate confirmation process in which he faced accusations of sexual misconduct dating back decades, all of which he denied. A new documentary revisits the accusations.
Kavanaugh this week appeared eager to counter any perceptions that the court is usually divided along ideological lines, pointing out several cases in which he had joined liberal justices in 5-4 decisions.
One was a ruling last year in favor of the Biden administration in its efforts to unwind a Trump immigration policy. He also mentioned two 5-4 decisions authored by liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of them in a criminal case in which the three liberals were joined by conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch in the majority.
"That's not following some usual perceived lineup," Kavanaugh said.
Statistics compiled for the SCOTUSblog legal website showed, however, that in the previous court term only 29% of the decisions were unanimous, lower than at any other time in the past two decades. Of the 66 cases, 14 resulted in 6-3 decisions along ideological lines.
The court is hearing more hot-button disputes this term, including a case that could end the use of racial preferences in college admissions and two major election-related disputes that could have impacts on the 2024 presidential race.
The court issued its first ruling this term in an argued case Monday, more than a month behind its normal schedule.
Kavanaugh downplayed the delay, saying at Notre Dame that the court was "off and running" and that it will issue all its rulings on schedule by the end of June.