Not since Warren Harding in 1921 nominated former President William Howard Taft to be chief justice has the country been presented with a high court nominee so completely shaped by the needs and mores of the executive branch as Brett Kavanaugh, unveiled Monday night as President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Though Kavanaugh served as Kennedy’s law clerk during the October 1993 term, the contrast between the two men could hardly be more complete. Kennedy’s roots lay in his days of small-town private practice; he made his way to the bench from private practice, and, as a judge, he was conservative but independent. Kavanaugh has been the creature and servant of political power all his days. It would be the height of folly to expect that, having attained his lifetime’s ambition of a seat on the Supreme Court, he will become anything else.
A product of the District and its affluent Maryland suburbs, Kavanaugh attended Georgetown Prep with another D.C. princeling, Neil Gorsuch. He went on to Yale College and Yale Law School. He and Gorsuch served together as law clerks for Kennedy; Kavanaugh worked for President George H.W. Bush’s Solicitor General, Kenneth Starr, then, after Bush left office, worked with then-Independent Counsel Starr investigating the Clinton White House. In 2001, Kavanaugh went to the White House himself to serve George W. Bush, first in his legal counsel’s office and then, for five years, as his staff secretary, ensuring a smooth flow of paper among the president and his aides. While in the White House, he married another Bush retainer, Ashley Estes, who had served for nearly a decade as Bush’s personal secretary. Bush originally named Kavanaugh to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2003, though Democratic opposition delayed his confirmation until 2006.