Jurisprudence

Fear a Justice Brett Kavanaugh

As his confirmation steamrolls ahead, Americans should be terrified.

Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, testifying separately before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images and Gabriella Demczuk-Pool/Getty Images.

When Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh was over, it wasn’t quite clear what had hit those of us who’d been sitting in the room. The hearing room in Dirksen is tiny, and while the slammed binder and the escalating shouting of the nominee might have looked pretty dramatic on TV, inside the chamber, the effect was that of an out-of-control house party. Too loud, too scary, too close, too real. Like being locked inside something terrible with the music cranked up.

Anita Hill once told me that, in 1991, Clarence Thomas had race and she had only gender. But now, in 2018, Brett Kavanaugh had rage and Christine Blasey Ford had only gender. With the Senate Judiciary Committee moving on Friday to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate without any further inquiry around Blasey Ford’s damning and plainly credible testimony that Kavanaugh had gleefully and drunkenly sexually assaulted her at a 1982 house party as his buddy Mark Judge watched, it appears as though his rage alone will have been enough to earn him life tenure on the highest court in the land.

The dynamic of Thursday’s hearing was consistent: He had fury, and contempt, and seething threats that the republic would pay if he were thwarted. She had to functionally lie back and try not to infuriate anyone, as Republicans cowered behind the female prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, they had brought on to interrogate her. That was until it was Kavanaugh’s turn to speak, when they quickly jettisoned that paper-thin pretense of investigative “independence” and joined Kavanaugh to form a chorus of angry shouting men. They towered silently over Mitchell for the first half of the hearing, then summarily ignored her when she wasn’t offering questions fast or furious enough to protect their nominee.

At least Anita Hill was insulted, demeaned, and discredited to her face. Ford was patronized, thanked, and told that she was very, very credible. Over and over she was told she’d been given a “safe space” to tell her story; as if a safe space substitutes for reasoned process and investigation. She was given a safe space and then dismissed as though she were some character in a very sad French movie that had been very affecting indeed but had nothing to do with the great man and his destiny. After presenting an undeniable narrative—and one the nobody ever really attempted to specifically refute—she was told that her credibility didn’t count for anything because a man was bellowing and injured, that whatever had happened to her was not as important as his pain. And Senate Republicans—having tucked Mitchell back into her naughty chair—were delighted to bellow and yelp of horrid injuries they too had sustained alongside their guy.

Of course, the purported wrong was the process. Again, the villain of the piece was Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who had kept Ford’s July letter outlining one of Kavanaugh’s alleged crimes in confidence at her request until eventually forwarding it to the FBI for inquiry earlier this month. Don’t be fooled, though: Feinstein would have been screamed at just as furiously had she come forward weeks or months earlier with Ford’s report, and another pretext for dismissing Ford and her witnesses would have been concocted.

As GOP rage gathered steam, we were told that this needed to be treated as a criminal proceeding—innocent until proven guilty—and the Republicans contended that there was no evidence of criminal conduct. But, of course there was evidence: compelling firsthand testimony and numerous supporting accounts. And of course, they refused to subpoena the key witness to the event, opting instead for the “we take his word for it” route of investigation by registered letter. The “hearing,” as expected, had been staged as a puppet show of “credibility.” And absent witnesses, or evidence, or any mechanism for fact finding, both sides could be called credible and Brett Kavanaugh could still be confirmed. On Friday, Sen. Jeff Flake—perhaps the Senate’s greatest profile in cowardice masquerading as courage—said that he would cast the key vote to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination out of the committee. Despite the lack of anything resembling a meaningful investigation, which Ford and the other women who have accused Kavanaugh of sexual violence have repeatedly requested, and the judge has repeatedly declined to request, it now appears Kavanaugh will be confirmed. His fate rests in the hands of Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Joe Manchin.* Given her mind-bending bravery and likely folk-hero status, one hopes that Ford will not now come to believe that her decision was made in vain. But it was impossible on Friday morning not to think of her own description of her reluctance to come forward out of fear that she would “just be jumping in front of a train that was headed to where it was headed anyway.”

Ultimately, he had rage and she had gender, and a “job interview” was recast as though it would result in a lifelong criminal conviction with a death sentence on the line for the man in the dock. Calling no witnesses and accepting no supporting testimony were a perfect way to ensure that he would be innocent of all charges. She had gender. They were sorry for her loss.

Brett Kavanaugh is never going to understand that women don’t sort themselves into those upon which he bestows his munificence (clerks, girls in plaid skirts) and those he can shout at, and bully, like Feinstein and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Feminism doesn’t mean you get to pick which women you patronize and which you can insult. Brett Kavanaugh is also unlikely to understand that justice doesn’t mean demanding your lifetime appointment because it’s your time.

Put aside whether any sane litigant can have any confidence in the justice system after the man who will be the decisive vote on the court made it manifestly clear that he believes half the country, and the media, and liberal dark money were all in on a conspiracy to take him out. Because of the Clintons. This wasn’t ultimately a hearing about whether Kavanaugh deserved to be elevated to the high court. It was a blind partisan tantrum in which he dragged the judicial branch down to a place of ugliness and rancor from which it will not soon recover.

Others have detailed the incomplete answers, the fact that he wasn’t questioned correctly about his calendar, the ways in which his claims that he had been exonerated by other witnesses were absolutely distorted, and the laughable claims about his well-documented and widely known drinking and his “sensitive stomach.” While Ford offered exacting answers, Kavanaugh repeated half-truths and conspiracy theories and sneered and slammed through a fog of rage. It was a perfect contrast not just to Ford’s conduct, but to that of Merrick Garland, who never said a word when the seat to which he was entitled was yanked away.

There were two distinct moods in the Kavanaugh hearing: Ford evoked undistilled sadness and vulnerability; Kavanaugh evoked raw fear that if he were ever crossed, he would lose control. Do. Not. Make. Him. Angry. is the new judicial temperament. It is the perfect metaphorical springboard to the highest court in the land, where he will say he’s calling balls and strikes while he froths with contempt at those he believes coordinated against him: Be very afraid. This is what we will call “justice” now.

Correction, Sept. 28, 2018: Due to an editing error, this post originally misstated that Collins, Murkowski, and Manchin were said to be voting in a bloc with Flake.