After weeks of frenzied speculation, the decision is in: President Trump will nominate D.C. Circuit appellate judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by retiring justice Anthony Kennedy. The pick will potentially give the court’s conservatives an ironclad five-man originalist bloc—provided Kavanaugh can survive a hotly contested confirmation process in the Senate.
“What matters is not a judge’s political views, but whether they can set aside those views to do what the law and the constitution require. I am pleased to say that I have found without doubt such a person,” Trump said during the much-hyped and televised announcement. “Throughout legal circles, he is considered a judge’s judge, a true thought leader among his peers. He is a brilliant jurist, with a clear and effective writing style, universally regarded as one of the finest and sharpest legal minds of our time.”
Kavanaugh spoke after Trump, thanking the president and Kennedy for their service to the country.
“The Framers established that the Constitution is designed to secure the blessings of liberty,” Kavanaugh said. “Justice Kennedy devoted his career to securing liberty. I am deeply honored to be nominated to fill his seat on the Supreme Court.”
The judge also thanked his parents for instilling in him “the importance of equality for all Americans,” and pitched himself as a down-the-middle textualist who would make decisions based on the letter of the law, not his own political views.
“My judicial philosophy is straightforward. A judge must be independent, and must interpret the law, not make the law. A judge must interpret statutes as written, and a judge must interpret the Constitution as written, informed by history and tradition and precedent.”
Kavanaugh, who follows Justice Neil Gorsuch as President Trump’s second nominee to the high court in as many years, has long been seen as a rising star in conservative jurisprudence, establishing himself as an originalist in the vein of Antonin Scalia with a hefty pile of written opinions in the decade since he was appointed to the D.C. Circuit by President George W. Bush.
Trump moved quickly after Kennedy’s surprise announcement last month, narrowing a list of more than 20 potential nominees down to four: Raymond Kethledge, Thomas Hardiman, Amy Coney Barrett, and Kavanaugh. Rumors swirled in the press about which direction the president was leaning, but Kavanaugh was consistently said to be in Trump’s top two.
Kavanaugh’s appointment now goes to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will endeavor to shepherd him through with a narrow 51-vote majority. During last year’s fight, McConnell managed to marshal 54 votes to confirm Gorsuch, with three red-state Democrats joining the effort. But the margin of error will be even thinner this year: GOP senator Luther Strange was voted out in a special election, replaced by Democrat Doug Jones. A second senator, John McCain of Arizona, is convalescing at home as he fights an aggressive cancer. And Democrats are even less likely to break ranks this time around, given that replacing frequent swing voter Kennedy with an originalist will give the court’s conservatives a strong majority for the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, McConnell himself counselled Trump against picking Kavanaugh in recent days, saying the judge’s hefty pile of legal opinions might slow down confirmation proceedings as Republicans scramble to confirm him before the midterm elections.
The attention now turns to GOP Senate moderates Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who between them will have the ability to spike the nomination if they should choose to do so. Collins had previously said she wanted Trump to appoint a nominee with a strong belief in judicial precedent, and thus would not support a nominee who has shown “hostility” toward Roe v. Wade. But early indications are that Collins will support Kavanaugh, as she supported Gorsuch last year: the two are ideological equals who even co-authored a book on precedent together.
“Tomorrow, I begin meeting with members of the Senate, which plays an essential role in this process,” Kavanaugh said. “I will tell each Senator that I revere the constitution. I believe that an independent judiciary is the crown jewel of our constitutional Republic. If confirmed by the Senate, I will keep an open mind in every case, and I will always strive to preserve the constitution of the United States and the American rule of law.”