WASHINGTON – Pressured by Democrats with President Donald Trump on their minds, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh rejected repeated efforts at Wednesday's Senate confirmation hearing to reveal his views about a president pardoning himself or being forced to testify in a criminal case.
For a second day, the judge nominated by Trump insisted to probing senators that he fully embraced the importance of judicial independence. But he refused to provide direct answers to Democrats who wanted him to say whether there are limits on a president's power to issue pardons, including to himself or in exchange for a bribe. He also would not say whether he believes the president can be subpoenaed to testify.
“I'm not going to answer hypothetical questions of that sort,” Kavanaugh said in response to a question from Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont about pardons. Still, he began his long day in the witness chair by declaring that “no one is above the law.”
The Senate Judicial Committee hearing has strong political overtones ahead of the November congressional elections, but as a practical matter, Democrats lack the votes to block Kavanaugh's confirmation.
They are concerned that Kavanaugh will push the court to the right on abortion, guns and other issues, and that he will side with Trump in cases stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible ties to the Trump campaign. The 53-year-old appellate judge answered cautiously when asked about most of those matters, refusing an invitation from Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to pledge to step aside from any Supreme Court cases dealing with Trump and Mueller's investigation.
Protesters continued their efforts to interrupt the hearings, but senators basically ignored their shouts as they were removed by police. Democrats' complaints also persisted that they were being denied access to records from Kavanaugh's time in the George W. Bush White House.
The Democrats weren't the only ones who recognized the importance of questions about Trump and the Russia investigation. Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, asked Kavanaugh right away whether he would be independent from the president who chose him for a highly prestigious lifetime position.
Kavanaugh said, “The first thing that makes a good judge is independence, not being swayed by political or public pressure.”
He cited historic cases including the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that desegregated schools and the U.S. v. Nixon decision that compelled the president to turn over the Watergate tapes – a ruling that Kavanaugh had previously questioned.
“That takes some backbone,” he said of the justices who decided those cases.
But when asked more specific questions, including whether a president can be required to respond to a subpoena, Kavanaugh said, “I can't give you an answer on that hypothetical question.”
On abortion, Kavanaugh said the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that ensures access to abortion has been affirmed “many times.”
“Respect for precedent is important. ... Precedent is rooted right in the Constitution itself,” he said.
Kavanaugh likened Roe v. Wade to another controversial, landmark Supreme Court decision, the Miranda ruling about the rights of criminal suspects.
Kavanaugh said the court specifically reaffirmed both decisions in later cases that made them “precedent on precedent.”