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Senate confirms Kavanaugh to Supreme Court, ending a clash with lasting fallout

Samuel Corum/The New York TimesPresident Donald Trump speaks with reporters before departing the White House grounds, in Washington, Oct. 6, 2018. Trump was headed to a campaign rally in Kansas on Saturday as a deeply divided Senate was poised to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
October 6, 2018 04:30 pm

WASHINGTON — A deeply divided Senate voted Saturday to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, delivering a victory to President Donald Trump and ending a rancorous Washington battle that began as a debate over ideology and jurisprudence and concluded with questions of sexual misconduct.

The vote, almost entirely along party lines, was 50-48, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska — the lone Republican to break with her party — voting “present” instead of “no” to accommodate a colleague who could not attend and would have voted “yes.” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was the lone Democrat to support Kavanaugh.

The final result was expected; all senators had announced their intentions by Friday, after the nomination cleared a crucial procedural hurdle in a 51-49 vote.

But while the brawl over Kavanaugh’s confirmation may be over, people on both sides of the debate agree that it will have lasting ramifications on the Senate, the Supreme Court and the nation.

As the senators entered their final hours of debate Saturday, hundreds of Kavanaugh opponents were massed on the steps of the Supreme Court. They later rushed the barricades around the Capitol and sat on its steps, chanting “No means no!” as Capitol Police officers began arresting them. Women and sexual assault survivors around the country were furious, feeling as if their voices had not been heard.

Inside the chamber, protests erupted as Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, delivered a speech deploring “mob rule” — a reference to the activists and sexual assault survivors who have roamed the Capitol in recent weeks, confronting Republican senators. “I stand with survivors!” one shouted. “This process is corrupt!”

Even some of Kavanaugh’s future colleagues sounded unsettled. On Friday, on the eve of the vote, two of them — Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — expressed concern that the partisan rancor around his nomination would injure the court’s reputation.

“Part of the court’s strength and part of the court’s legitimacy depends on people not seeing the court in the way that people see the rest of the governing structures of this country now,” Kagan said in an appearance at Princeton University. “In other words, people thinking of the court as not politically divided in the same way, as not an extension of politics, but instead somehow above the fray, even if not always in every case.”

Once confirmed, Kavanaugh will shift the ideological balance of the court to the right, giving it a solid conservative majority. He will replace the retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a moderate conservative who was its longtime swing vote, and at 53 he is young enough to serve for decades, shaping American jurisprudence for a generation, if not more.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, was unequivocal about what Republicans had accomplished.

“It is the most important contribution we have made to the country that will last the longest,” McConnell said in an interview, ticking through two Supreme Court justices and 26 federal appeals court judges confirmed in the last two years.

For Trump, who has made stocking the federal judiciary with conservatives a signature of his presidency, Kavanaugh’s confirmation will fulfill a campaign promise in the middle of a difficult midterm election. He is already using Kavanaugh’s confirmation process to energize his base; at a recent rally, he fired up his supporters by mocking Christine Blasey Ford, the Northern California research psychologist who accused Kavanaugh of trying to rape her when they were teenagers.

Until Blasey went public, Kavanaugh’s confirmation seemed assured. But her account — first in an article in The Washington Post and later in riveting testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee — unleashed a cascade of other allegations and prompted a last-minute FBI inquiry into the judge’s conduct.

Kavanaugh vigorously denied the allegations in his own angry and emotional testimony before the Judiciary Committee. On Saturday, one of his accusers, Deborah Ramirez, who has said Kavanaugh thrust his genitals in her face during a drunken dormitory party at Yale, issued a statement deploring what was about to happen.

“Thirty-five years ago, the other students in the room chose to laugh and look the other way as sexual violence was perpetrated on me by Brett Kavanaugh,” she wrote. “As I watch many of the senators speak and vote on the floor of the Senate I feel like I’m right back at Yale where half the room is laughing and looking the other way. Only this time, instead of drunk college kids, it is U.S. senators who are deliberately ignoring his behavior. This is how victims are isolated and silenced.”

As it did for the past week, the Senate debate Saturday turned as much on Kavanaugh’s own conduct during his Senate testimony as it did on questions of the law. In the Senate hearing, he called Blasey’s allegations “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” and directed barbed comments at his Democratic questioners.

“I had concerns at the very beginning of this process, and I fear it more than ever at the end of the process,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said on the Senate floor. “Any remaining hope that Judge Kavanaugh could be trusted to be an impartial justice or perceived to be an impartial justice was shattered by his opening statement at his last hearing.”

But Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who held the floor for a time overnight Saturday, said those who would question Kavanaugh’s demeanor “certainly didn’t see the same thing I saw, which is someone who was seeking sincerely to defend his own record of public service, his own private conduct against great adversity, in circumstances in which he and his family have been dragged through the mud by no choice of their own.”