President Donald Trump, seeking a rightward shift on the Supreme Court and to force vulnerable Senate Democrats into a tough vote, tapped D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Should Kavanaugh be confirmed by the Senate, it would give the president an early legacy with two high court appointments. Notably, while much about this presidency has been unconventional, how Trump has selected Supreme Court nominees has been routine — aside from the reality television-like flair in announcing them.
Several Senate Republicans applauded as Judge Kavanaugh, joined by his wife and two young daughters, joined Trump on stage in the East Room.
The president hailed Kavanaugh’s decisions since becoming a judge for their collective “skill, insight and rigorous adherence to the law.”
Trump thanked senators, both Republican and Democratic, for their advice during the process. He also urged them to quickly confirm his nominee.
“The Senate now has the chance to protect this glorious heritage by sending Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court,” the president said.
Watch: Trump Nominates Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court
“A judge must be independent and interpret the law as it is written,” Kavanaugh said in a preview of his coming Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.
He noted “a majority” of his own law clerks have been female as his confirmation fight starts and the race to ensure moderate GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski vote with their Republican colleagues to put him on the Supreme Court.
Kennedy, the 81-year-old Ronald Reagan appointee, became the high court’s most consistent swing vote, at times disappointing conservatives by siding with the panel’s liberal faction. On major cases related to abortion, gay rights, capital punishment and affirmative action, Kennedy joined majority rulings that often angered conservatives. In Kavanaugh, Trump hopes he has selected a potential associate justice who will consistently vote with the four sitting conservatives on landmark decisions. Kavanaugh clerked for Kennedy.
Kavanuagh said he will begin meeting with senators on Tuesday, saying: “I will tell each senator that I revere the Constitution. I believe an independent judiciary is the crown jewel of our constitutional republic.”
He said he would to keep an “open mind” about any case that comes before the court, if he is confirmed, adding he will “strive to preserve the Constitution of the United States ... and the rule of law.”
The president informed the GOP senators who attended the high court announcement before the ceremony began, said Marc Short, White House legislative affairs director.
He expressed confidence the nominee will be confirmed — and with some Democratic votes.
“Absolutely, we expect to get Dem votes,” Short told reporters moments after the event ended.
Asked what will be the White House’s message to Senate Democrats, Short replied: “I think you look at what his credentials are, you look at how he’s served our country. And I think what’s more disappointing is seeing Democrats who said they would be opposed before we even announced the nominee.”
“I do think the process, unfortunately has changed in ways that’s more close-minded,” he said. “But I think this candidate is going to win over plenty of support.”
Republican and Democratic senators are gearing up for a fight, with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., saying hours before the announcement he hopes the opposition party will reverse the chamber’s “bad habit of treating good people as innocent until nominated.”
But legal experts on both sides of the political spectrum say that is unlikely. But should Kavanaugh get confirmed, the analysts expect the court to move rightward for perhaps decades.
Trump’s selection will “change the court and country for years to come,” said Michael Waldman, a speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton who now is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.
“It doesn’t matter so much who got selected from a list that was submitted to the White House by the Federalist Society,” said Waldman, referring to the organization that advocates for conservative positions on legal matters. “What matters is there is a list the president of the United States is working off of from the Federalist Society. … Conservatives play nuclear-tipped hardball with the Supreme Court.”
Pomona College Politics Professor Amanda Hollis-Brusky, who has closely studied conservative politics for years, said the president’s second Supreme Court pick mirrors his nominees for federal courts across the country because “you will find the Federalist Society gene present in every single one — and that is no coincidence.”
“The society’s leadership ... has carefully hand-picked and crafted the list of nominees for the administration,” she said. “Donald Trump is poised to bring 30 years of patient, careful, calculated work by the Federalist Society to fruition with his selection of the next Supreme Court Justice. … Conservatives gambled on the reality television star host. And it has paid off ‘bigly’ for them.”
Leonard Leo, the vice president of the Federalist Society who has been on leave advising the White House on its selection, and others involved in recent days described a process that largely was focused on a nominee with a solid record of viewing laws strictly rather than, as activists on both sides have said about judges of other political bends, making new policies via their decisions.
“At the end of the day, what matters is a judge’s record,” Leo said Monday morning. “And what makes a judge the most fair and courageous and impartial is the idea that he interprets the law as written.
“And that’s what the president’s talked about, as well. He wants judges who are going to enforce and respect the limits on government power contained in the Constitution,” he told CNN.
Leo and other Trump aides have contended the process was not about selecting a potential justice who would ensure conservatives could roll back the landmark abortion rights-granting case Roe v. Wade.
Eighteen states have automatic triggers in place that would roll back abortion rights inside their borders if Roe is ever overturned, raising the stakes for Trump’s selection.
“All I can tell you is the process I’ve seen. And the president hasn’t asked any such questions [of the candidates],” Leo said. “Lots of presidents before him have said these kinds of things — on both sides of the aisle.”
But Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., took to the Senate floor Monday evening to label Leo as hellbent on overturning Roe. “‘No one — no one — has been more dedicated to overturning Roe v. Wade than Leonard Leo,” he said, quoting a conservative opinion writer.
“The American people deserve to know what kind of a justice President Trump’s nominee would be,” Schumer said, previewing his strategy for the fight ahead. “President Trump is the one who made the litmus test for his nominees, not us. The onus is on his nominee to show where he or she might stand.”
Should Schumer prefer to use what tactics the minority party has under the chamber's rules, he would be making things even harder for vulnerable members of his caucus who are in tough re-election fights. That list includes Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Jon Tester of Montana.