Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing turned into a political spectacle within moments of Tuesday’s kickoff, as top Democrats tried to overtake the session with a rapid-fire string of objections and protesters shouted and screamed from the audience.
The chaos led Republican Sen. John Cornyn to remark, “This is the first confirmation hearing subject to mob rule.”
More than an hour and 15 minutes after the hearing began, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, moved past Democratic attempts to delay and delivered his opening statement, over the sustained shouts of protesters who were being escorted out of the room.
“Judge Kavanaugh is one of the most qualified nominees – if not the most qualified nominee – I have seen,” Grassley said.
The disruptions continued as lawmakers attempted to make opening statements. Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch struggled to deliver his prepared remarks, as protesters audibly shouted over him.
“I think we ought to have this loudmouth removed,” a frustrated Hatch said. “We shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of stuff.”
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Grassley’s statement capped one of the most unruly openings of any Supreme Court hearing. When Grassley first tried to kick off proceedings earlier Tuesday morning, Democrats interrupted within seconds. First, Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris raised objections to the committee just receiving a batch of 42,000 documents relating to the nominee’s work with past administrations.
“We cannot possibly move forward,” Harris, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential contender, said.
Grassley told her she was “out of order,” but other Democrats chimed in to back up Harris, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who moved to adjourn.
This prompted applause from some in the audience, and touched off protests and shouting. Then, after New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker added his voice complaining of a “rush,” Grassley countered:
“I think you are taking advantage of my decency and my integrity,” Grassley said.
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Grassley rejected the protests, saying there will be “plenty of opportunities” to respond to the Democrats’ complaints and said he would “proceed accordingly.”
“We have said for a long period of time that we were going to proceed on this very day and I think we ought to give the American people the opportunity to hear whether judge Kavanaugh should be on the Supreme Court or not,” Grassley said.
Texas Sen. Cornyn suggested Democrats would be “held in contempt of court” if they behaved that way in a court of law.
He also accused Democrats of turning the hearing into “mob rule.”
“We have rules in the Senate,” Cornyn said. “We have norms for decorum. Everybody as you pointed out will get a chance to have their say.”
Grassley called for “proper respect and decorum.”
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“This is something I’ve never gone through before in 15 Supreme Court nominations,” Grassley said.
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The spectacle underscored the political nature of the confirmation hearings, coming two months before the midterms and as some senators gear up for a possible 2020 run.
Attempting to move ahead with the hearing, Grassley gave Kavanaugh a chance to introduce his family.
“I’m very honored to be here, honored to have my family here,” Kavanaugh said, before Democrats resumed their attempt to delay the hearing.
Kavanaugh has left one of the longest paper trails of any recent Supreme Court nominee, having served for more than a decade on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and, before that, for five years as a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s office in the George W. Bush administration.
Democrats have seen thousands of those documents, but want time to review and seek more.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in her opening remarks, expressed concern over how Kavanaugh would rule on cases involving abortion and guns, calling for more documents from his time in the White House, and said, “You are being nominated for a pivotal seat. It would likely be the deciding vote on fundamental issues.”
Kavanaugh also worked for independent counsel Ken Starr for three years during the probe that led to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton.
Tuesday’s hearing will include opening statements from lawmakers and Kavanaugh himself. In excerpts released by the White House Tuesday morning, Kavanaugh vowed to be an objective “pro-law judge.”
“A good judge must be an umpire—a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy,” he plans to say. “I don’t decide cases based on personal or policy preferences. I am not a pro-plaintiff or pro-defendant judge. I am not a pro-prosecution or pro-defense judge. I am a pro-law judge. … If confirmed to the Court, I would be part of a Team of Nine, committed to deciding cases according to the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
In recent days, Democrats have cried foul that the Kavanaugh paper trail is actually not long enough, saying they have been denied access to all the documents they need to vet his nomination.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday night took to Twitter to raise objections to how the Senate received 42,000 pages of Kavanaugh documents the night before the confirmation hearing began.
“This underscores just how absurd this process is,” the New York Democrat tweeted. “Not a single senator will be able to review these records before tomorrow.”
Grassley, in a written statement submitted for the record, on Tuesday accused Democrats of trying to “bury this committee in millions of pages of irrelevant paperwork.” He called out California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking member, for wanting to search the emails of every Bush White House aide for Kavanaugh documents.
“This would have taken months and months to complete,” Grassley said. “As I have repeatedly stated, I am not going to put the American taxpayers on the hook for the Democratic leaders’ fishing expedition.”
Kavanaugh’s elevation from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy would mark a generational rightward shift on the Supreme Court, raising the stakes beyond those of last year’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch.
Ahead of the hearings, Democrats have ratcheted up their rhetoric.
Last month, Booker accused anyone who supports Kavanaugh of being “complicit in evil.”
Some Democrats, including Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., had rejected Trump’s selection before they even knew who it was, predicting the nomination process would be a “corrupt bargain with the far Right, big corporations, and Washington special interests.”
But Kavanaugh steadily has gathered support from legal circles, former colleagues and Republican lawmakers.
The judge’s nomination, though, will ultimately succeed or fail depending on a handful of swing-vote senators, including vulnerable red-state Democrats and moderate pro-choice Republicans who have all said that they would withhold judgment on the nominee.
Republicans command a narrow 50-49 Senate majority, which would return to 51-49 once a Republican successor to the late Sen. John McCain is appointed. Republicans have little margin for error, though Vice President Pence can break a tie.
Republicans have said they hope to have Kavanaugh confirmed by a floor vote by early October, when the next Supreme Court term begins.