Federal Courts and Nominations

With Battle Over, Kavanaugh Quickly Gets to Work as a Supreme Court Justice

A day after the bitter fight over his nomination ended in his elevation to the Supreme Court, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh was in his new chambers on Sunday, preparing for the arguments the court is to hear as it enters the second week of its term.

His supporters hope he can settle into the court’s work, demonstrate that he is an able judge and put accusations of sexual misconduct and questions about his temperament behind him. His critics say the court may never fully recover from a confirmation process marked by raw anger and partisan polarization.

Justice Kavanaugh met with his four law clerks, all women — a first for the Supreme Court — in chambers that had until recently been occupied by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who has moved to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s old chambers.

It was Justice Kennedy’s retirement that set off a fierce battle for his seat, one that concluded on Saturday with a 50-to-48 Senate vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh — the tightest margin for a successful nomination since 1881.

In the second round of his confirmation hearings last month, Justice Kavanaugh fiercely denied accusations that he had assaulted Christine Blasey Ford while the two were in high school. He said he had always treated women with respect, noting his strong record of hiring women as law clerks in his dozen years on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

He added in his testimony that he had provisionally hired his four Supreme Court clerks before allegations of sexual misconduct against him had surfaced. “All four are women,” he said. Counting Justice Kavanaugh’s new clerks, women make up a majority of Supreme Court clerks for the first time.

Justice Kavanaugh’s critics said his efforts were laudable, given that a Supreme Court clerkship is perhaps the most coveted credential in American law.

But they added that it would take more than hiring female clerks to undo the damage left by Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

“I applaud in general a commitment to hiring a diverse group of clerks, and hope all the justices encourage applicants of color, women and those with backgrounds beyond the usual elite,” said Elizabeth B. Wydra, the president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a liberal group that opposed Justice Kavanaugh’s nomination.

“Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot more than female clerks to undo the damage to the legitimacy of the court done by this travesty of a confirmation process. Women will feel much more confident in the court when their fundamental rights are protected and their equal dignity is respected in the rulings handed down by the justices.”

Justice Kavanaugh’s supporters said he should be judged by his hiring record. “He’s been promoting professional opportunities for women his entire career,” said Porter Wilkinson, who served as a law clerk to Justice Kavanaugh when he was an appeals court judge and who was on his confirmation team.

New justices often hire their former clerks when they start at the court, but only one of Justice Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court clerks, Kim Jackson, worked for him on the appeals court. The other three — Shannon Grammel, Megan Lacy and Sara Nommensen — worked for appeals court judges appointed by Republican presidents.

Ms. Lacy had also worked for Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who helped push through Justice Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Justice Kavanaugh said in his testimony last month that he had started to take action to address the underrepresentation of women among law clerks after reading a 2006 article in The New York Times noting that only seven of 37 Supreme Court clerks were women.

“A majority of my 48 law clerks over the last 12 years have been women,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “In my time on the bench, no federal judge — not a single one in the country — has sent more women law clerks to clerk on the Supreme Court than I have.”

While some justices have expressed worries about damage to the court’s image by the rancorous confirmation process, Justice Kavanaugh has deep connections to the court, ones that will ease his transition.

He served as a law clerk to Justice Kennedy in 1993 and 1994, early in the tenures of the two longest-serving members of the court, Justices Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He attended high school with President Trump’s first appointee, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.

Justice Kavanaugh will see other familiar faces at the courthouse. He was a leading “feeder judge,” sending law clerks from his appeals court chambers to justices across the ideological spectrum.

This term, six of his former clerks are working at the Supreme Court, double the number of any other appeals court judge.

Four of them are women.


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