Democrats know Trumps greatest legacy may be the ascent of a second conservative supreme court justice. Their fight to stop it starts now
Is he the unassuming family man who talks baseball over a beer, champions working women and directs traffic at the Fourth of July parade? Or the extreme ideologue whose ascent will strike a hammer blow to women, tilt America to the right for a generation and shore up the re-election of Donald Trump?
The opposing portraits of Brett Kavanaugh the man and Brett Kavanaugh the jurist will collide on Tuesday when the Senate considers him for the supreme court. The confirmation hearing, a critical test of temperament, may illuminate whether he is ultimately driven by the law or by ideology.
Either way, the seat is Kavanaugh’s to lose. Liberal activists have found it hard to sustain the fury that followed his nomination by Trump after swing vote Anthony Kennedy’s retirement in June. The hearing on Capitol Hill represents Democrats’ last best chance to thwart him.
“The only hope the country has is that Democrats will treat Kavanaugh like a hostile witness on the witness stand under cross-examination, throw him off script and break him down,” said Francis Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois.
“You do not need a gentleman or gentlewoman to deal with Kavanaugh. You need a district attorney. Some Democrats are going to have to go for the jugular.”
But Kavanaugh, 53, is no Daniel in the lions’ den. He is the ultimate Washington insider, steeped in the city’s political and legal establishments. His father spent more than two decades in the city as a lobbyist for the cosmetics industry. His mother was a high school teacher and a Maryland judge.
An only child, Kavanaugh went to all-male Catholic schools, studied at Yale University and Yale Law School, clerked for Kennedy in 1993-94 and was an associate counsel for independent counsel Kenneth Starr. In 1998, two days before President Bill Clinton testified to a grand jury from the White House, Kavanaugh posed 10 suggested questions about the affair with Monica Lewinsky, many of them sexually explicit.
He was a member of Lawyers for Bush-Cheney during the 2000 election and took part in the Florida recount that gave George W Bush victory over Al Gore. Kavanaugh served as a White House counsel to Bush and then staff secretary until 2006, when – his nomination having been held up by Democrats for three years – he was appointed to the US court of appeals for the DC circuit. Once he became a judge, he decided to stop voting.
He offered an insight into his judicial philosophy during a speech at Catholic University’s law school in 2015. He likened being a judge to being a good umpire, able to walk in others’ shoes and understand them while keeping emotions in check.
“On the bench, to put it in the vernacular, don’t be a jerk,” he said, also advising: “Check those political allegiances at the door when you become a judge.”
Kavanaugh’s supporters have been quick to point out that he hired more female than male clerks. Sarah Pitlyk, who became a mother shortly before clerking for Kavanaugh in 2010-11, recently told an audience at the Heritage Foundation how he called her before the job started.
“He just put it out there and said, ‘You’re a mom coming to clerk, I haven’t done this before, you haven’t done this before, let’s figure out what we need to do to make the clerkship just as rewarding for you as it would be otherwise but also to make it possible for you to be a mother while you’re doing it.’”
She added: “He asked for my ideas about how do to that. He didn’t tell me what would work for me, he didn’t prescribe the best solution based on his infinite wisdom or what he’d seen in other contexts … We made the accommodations that I needed to see my son every day and also be clerk for Judge Kavanaugh.”
The judge lives with his wife of 14 years, Ashley Estes Kavanaugh, and daughters Margaret and Elizabeth in a $1.2m home in Chevy Chase, an affluent, predominantly white town north of Washington. (According to the New York Times, he makes $220,600 as a federal judge while she earns about $60,000 as town manager).
Kavanaugh is seen out walking his dog, Murphy, or shovelling snow. He has coached girls basketball teams and serves as a lector and usher at Blessed Sacrament Church. Greg Chernack, a Democrat, lawyer and chairman of the town council, said: “He is very unassuming. He’s very down to earth and easy to talk to. He’s just another one of the neighbours. He usually plays traffic cop on 4 July when we have a parade.”
Kavanaugh is a fan of Bruce Springsteen and the Washington Nationals baseball team, Chernack added. “I sense he’s a big reader and right upfront in knowing legal literature. There are many things I disagree with him on but he’s an extremely impressive jurist and the type of judge you want a Republican president to nominate.”