Thursday morning brought drama to the Senate Judiciary Committee. While the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sat silently, Democrats and Republicans on the committee clashed, exchanging some very personal remarks and attacks, over the process being used for documents from Kavanaugh’s time in the George W. Bush White House. At least one of those documents involved Kavanaugh’s writings and opinions about “racial profiling”—a particular document, in this case, designated as “committee confidential,” meaning not to be released or specifically discussed in public, including in questions to the nominee. On this one, the Democrat Cory Booker said he would defy the majority and release it publicly, even if the Republicans moved to expel him from the Senate.
In an “I am Spartacus” moment, other Democrats, including Dick Durbin, said they would join with Booker, and they almost dared the Republicans, whose point man in this case was Deputy Majority Leader John Cornyn, to go ahead and try.
The level of acrimony here was, well, unusual. We have had highly charged Supreme Court nominations before, including those of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas; before that, the Richard Nixon nominees Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell; and the Lyndon B. Johnson nominee Abe Fortas, who was subject to the only filibuster in history on a Supreme Court nominee. But in the cases of Bork and Thomas, as well as those of nominees such as Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, the ideological and partisan division, which at times spilled over into over-the-top rhetoric, was managed through a fundamentally cooperative relationship between the chair and the ranking minority member on the committee, even when they disagreed deeply and passionately. That includes the case of the first Donald Trump nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Of course, there was no direct committee acrimony on Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland—because there was no process. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to meet with Garland, much less hold a hearing, and no Republican in the Senate objected to this unique breakdown in norms.