By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Chaos engulfed the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick, as Democrats on Tuesday complained bitterly about Republicans withholding documents about the nominee’s past White House service and shouting protesters were arrested in droves.
More than seven hours went by during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing before Kavanaugh, the conservative federal appeals court judge Trump selected for a lifetime job on the top U.S. judicial body, got to deliver his opening statement.
Kavanaugh, nominated by a president who has often criticized the federal judiciary, told the senators that “a judge must be independent, not swayed by public pressure. Our independent judiciary is the crown jewel of our constitutional republic.”
With Democratic senators repeatedly interrupting the committee’s Republican chairman Chuck Grassley at the outset of the hearing, the session quickly became a ruckus. U.S. Capitol police said 61 protesters were removed from the room and charged with disorderly conduct, along with nine more outside the hearing.
Democrats decried the withholding of the documents and sought to have the proceedings adjourned, as Grassley struggled to maintain order.
“This is the first confirmation for a Supreme Court justice I’ve seen, basically, according to mob rule,” Republican Senator John Cornyn said, a characterization Democrats rejected.
“What we’ve heard is the noise of democracy,” Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said.
Protesters, mostly women, took turns yelling as senators spoke, shouting, “This is a travesty of justice,” “Our democracy is broken” and “Vote no on Kavanaugh.” Demonstrators voiced concern about what they saw as the threat posed by Kavanaugh to abortion rights, healthcare access and gun control.
Democratic Senator Cory Booker appealed to Grassley’s “sense of decency and integrity” and said the withholding of the documents by Republicans and the White House left lawmakers unable to properly vet Kavanaugh.
“We cannot possibly move forward. We have not had an opportunity to have a meaningful hearing,” Democratic Senator Kamala Harris said.
Grassley deemed the Democrats’ request to halt the hearing “out of order” and accused them of obstruction. Republicans hold a slim Senate majority and can confirm Kavanaugh if they stay united. There were no signs of Republican defections.
Trump blasted the Democrats on Twitter, saying the hearing was “truly a display of how mean, angry and despicable the other side is” and accusing them of “looking to inflict pain and embarrassment” on Kavanaugh.
If confirmed, Kavanaugh, 53, is expected to move the court – which already had a conservative majority – further to the right. Senate Democratic leaders have vowed a fierce fight to try to block his confirmation. Democrats signalled they would press Kavanaugh on abortion, gun rights and presidential power when they get to question him starting on Wednesday in a hearing due to run through Friday.
Democrats have demanded in vain to see documents relating Kavanaugh’s time as staff secretary to Republican former President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2006. That job involved managing paper flow from advisers to Bush. Republicans also have released some, but not all, documents concerning Kavanaugh’s two prior years as a lawyer in Bush’s White House Counsel’s Office.
Republicans have said Democrats have more than enough documents to assess Kavanaugh’s record, including his 12 years of judicial opinions as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
‘LASTLINE OF DEFENCE’
Kavanaugh sat, fingers intertwined, quietly staring ahead at committee members as protesters in the audience screamed while being dragged out of the room. He occasionally jotted notes on paper.
When he finally got to speak, Kavanaugh called the Supreme Court “the last line of defence for the separation of powers (in the U.S. government), and the rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.”
“The Supreme Court must never be viewed as a partisan institution,” added Kavanaugh, who also paid tribute to his family and the justice he is nominated to replace, the retiring Anthony Kennedy.
Republican Orrin Hatch accused Democratic senators of political opportunism, noting, “We have folks who want to run for president,” though he did not mention any by name. There has been speculation Booker and Harris might consider 2020 presidential runs.
Hatch grew visibly irritated as protesters interrupted him.
“I think we ought to have this loudmouth removed,” Hatch said.
As the hearing paused for a lunch break, Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter who was killed in the Parkland, Florida high school mass shooting in February, tried to talk to Kavanaugh but the nominee turned away. Video of the encounter was shared widely on social media.
“I guess he did not want to deal with the reality of gun violence,” Guttenberg wrote on Twitter afterward.
White House spokesman Raj Shah said security intervened before Kavanaugh could shake Guttenberg’s hand.
The Democratic frustrations that boiled over on Tuesday had been simmering for more than two years. Democrats have accused Senate Republican leaders of stealing a Supreme Court seat by refusing to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama’s nominee to the high court Merrick Garland in 2016, allowing Trump to fill a Supreme Court vacancy instead.
Republicans also last year reduced the margin for advancing Supreme Court nominations from 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to a simple majority in order to force through the confirmation of Trump’s first high court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
The Senate is likely to vote on confirmation by the end of September. The court begins its next term in October.
The hearing gave Democrats a platform to make their case against Kavanaugh ahead of November’s congressional elections in which they are seeking to seize control of Congress from Republicans.
Liberals are concerned Kavanaugh could provide a decisive fifth vote on the nine-justice court to overturn or weaken the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion nationwide.
Kavanaugh is likely to be questioned about his views on investigating sitting presidents and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s campaign.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung, Amanda Becker, Lisa Lambert; Editing by Will Dunham)