Illustration: 3 overlapping images of Brett Kavanaugh with different facial expressions (one green, one red, one purple)
Illustration by Oliver Munday; images from Chip Somodevilla; Saul Loeb / AFP; Michael Reynolds / Getty

Is Brett Kavanaugh Out for Revenge?

Three years after his polarizing confirmation hearings, the Supreme Court’s 114th justice remains a mystery.

This article was published online on May 13, 2021.

The suburban gentry of Chevy Chase, Maryland, had some difficulty making sense of Brett Kavanaugh’s descent into villainy that fall. He had always seemed so nice and nonthreatening to his neighbors, so normal—the khaki-clad carpool dad who coached the girls’ basketball team and yammered endlessly about the Nats. It was true that his politics were unusual for the neighborhood, the kind of place where No Justice / No Peace signs stand righteously in front of million-dollar homes. But Brett was not a scary Republican, of the kind who had recently invaded Washington. He was well educated and properly socialized, a friend of the Bushes, a stalwart of the country club. When his nomination to the Supreme Court was first announced, the neighborhood had largely welcomed the news. People gave interviews attesting to his niceness; the owner of the Chevy Chase Lounge said that he would add Brett’s photo to the wall of famous patrons.

But then came the first accusation, and the next accusations, and the cable-news pile-on, and the Donald Trump tweets, and the satellite trucks on Thornapple Street, and the regrettable Senate hearings in which their neighbor appeared on national TV, his face twisted into an aggrieved snarl, his voice torqued up to an unnatural shout, ranting through tears about the political enemies who were trying to destroy his life—and, well, suddenly what to think about Brett wasn’t so clear anymore.

Stories of his shunning circulated among neighbors, accompanied by a mix of pity and schadenfreude: the woman at La Ferme who heckled him after dinner; the taunting message on the diner marquee that he passed each morning on his commute. Even at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, where people were usually so good about setting aside political differences, the Kavanaugh case proved divisive. Poor Father Foley was swamped with letters and emails, while parishioners parsed the details of Brett’s alleged youthful sins—What was a devil’s triangle, anyway?—and grumbled about watching him receive Communion.

Brett was confirmed in the end, of course, becoming the 114th justice to serve on the Supreme Court, but his photo never made it onto the wall at the Chevy Chase Lounge. And maybe it was just their imagination, but some of his neighbors swore that Brett was different now—harder, further away. He wore a baseball cap when he left the house, and started dining out more at the country club, where security was tight and access was limited. He canceled a planned trip to the annual Harvard–Yale game and turned down invitations to lectures and conferences, hosting small groups of students in his chambers instead.

For months, he seemed to float quietly through the neighborhood like a spectral figure, a ghost of culture wars past, condemned to haunt Chevy Chase. Sightings at the grocery store became moments of morbid fascination disguised as friendly concern: How did he look? What was his mood? Does he seem okay—you know, after everything?

Then one day, about six months after he was sworn in, Brett did something strange. It was Easter Sunday, and he had come to Blessed Sacrament for Mass with his family. When the service ended, he made his way outside, positioned himself at Father Foley’s elbow, and proceeded to greet parishioners as they filed out of the church—laughing and glad-handing and thanking them for coming, as though Brett were the priest and they were his flock.

This odd little spectacle lent itself to multiple interpretations. Was he reaching out in fellowship to his enemies? Making a show of contrition (or forgiveness)? Or was he perhaps signaling something more ominous? “I read it as a flex,” says one parishioner who huffily steered his family away from the scene. “I read it as I’m right here, in the middle of everything, and I’m not going away. I won.

A strange irony of Brett Kavanaugh’s ruinous 2018 confirmation battle is that for all the attention it commanded—and all the certainty it instilled in both supporters and opponents—Kavanaugh remained more or less a mystery when it was over. What did he believe? Whose interests was he serving? And what exactly happened in that suburban-Maryland bedroom all those years ago? Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that he’d sexually assaulted her in high school—and the judge’s denial—foregrounded debates over predation and privilege, even as Kavanaugh himself seemed to blur into abstraction. Nearly three years later, questions remain, not only about past behavior but about the future. The cold reality is that Kavanaugh is now on the bench. And there is reason to ask whether his bitter path to the Court might influence what he does with a lifetime appointment.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation cemented a conservative majority on the Court that got even stronger last year when he was joined by Amy Coney Barrett. Kavanaugh now sits at the Court’s ideological center—illustrating how far to the right the center has shifted. Any judicial victory that liberals hope to achieve in the coming years will likely require winning over the justice whose nomination they fought most ferociously to defeat.

As much as the modern Court clings to its image as an apolitical institution—enlightened, black-robed figures dispensing wisdom from on high, guided by love of country and Constitution—the truth is that its members have always been swayed by politics, ego, and grievance. After Clarence Thomas’s confirmation was nearly quashed in 1991 by accusations of sexual harassment, he retreated into a cocoon of allies and ideologues, rarely speaking in public even as he became one of the most right-wing justices in recent history. Some wonder whether Kavanaugh will follow the same trajectory. It was he, after all, who spoke in that infamous Senate hearing about the country reaping “the whirlwind” and suffering “consequences” in a way that led many to believe he was issuing threats. “As we all know,” he told the senators who were questioning him, “in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around.”

While Kavanaugh’s allies insist that those comments were misinterpreted, they also say that he still privately seethes over the “smear campaign” he believes he endured. “He’s made an effort to say, ‘Look, I’m not bitter about this. I’m moving forward,’ ” one friend told me. “But I assume, when he’s lying in bed at night, it’s hard not to think about it.” Another friend put it more bluntly: “He was really angry at Democrats for what they did to him and his family.” And yet, those same friends also describe a competing impulse in Kavanaugh—a burning desire to gain readmission into polite society and enjoy all the perks associated with one of the world’s most prestigious jobs.

The Court is poised to tackle a range of consequential issues in the near future—from the regulatory power of federal agencies to voting rights to the fate of Roe v. Wade. And for all of America’s illustrious constitutional scaffolding and its ideals about the rule of law, a generation of jurisprudence could come down to an unnerving question: Is Justice Kavanaugh out for revenge?

Brett Michael Kavanaugh learned the virtues of partisanship long before he discovered politics. As a kid, he rooted fanatically for the teams he inherited, the Redskins and the Bullets; as a teen, he developed a close-knit group of friends at Georgetown Prep and performed his allegiance with try-hard zeal. Although Kavanaugh was not a standout athlete, he relished being part of a team—the nicknames and the inside jokes, the camaraderie born of a common cause, no matter how pointless or juvenile. When his friends set a goal of drinking 100 kegs during the year leading up to graduation, few gave more to the effort than Kavanaugh. Acquaintances prone to armchair psychoanalysis would later speculate that his fixation on the fraternal grew out of his status as an only child. “He’s very good in groups of male friends,” a former classmate told me.

If Kavanaugh had grown up somewhere else, he might have joined a cult or a street gang; because he grew up in Bethesda, he pledged a fraternity at Yale. The elite pedigree of Delta Kappa Epsilon—past members include five presidents and a handful of Supreme Court justices—belied its essential frattishness. To join, Kavanaugh reportedly endured a series of ritual humiliations, including an order to hop around campus in a leather football helmet while grabbing his crotch and chanting, “I’m a geek, I’m a geek, I’m a power tool. / When I sing this song, I look like a fool.”

While Yale was not known for its robust Greek culture, the “Dekes” had a reputation for debauchery. They boisterously waved flags made of women’s underwear, read aloud from Penthouse in the quad, and threw legendarily boozy parties. Once, with a frat brother, Kavanaugh got into a bar fight after a UB40 concert, and wound up being questioned by the New Haven police. (According to a police report obtained by The New York Times, Kavanaugh was not charged.) Decades later, episodes like these would become fodder during Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle. Democrats discerned a violent, misogynistic streak that supported the allegations against him; Republicans dismissed it all as youthful bravado. But to those who knew Kavanaugh, the stories also revealed the blinkered recklessness of a young man intoxicated by the thrill of belonging.

Kavanaugh showed few signs of ideological fervor as an undergraduate. In fact, his former classmate told me, even at Yale Law School most of his fellow students had no sense of his politics until he started conspicuously cultivating relationships with influential conservative professors. This abrupt political coming-out prompted more than a little cynicism among his peers, who suspected careerism (a mode not exactly foreign to the Yale Law School set): In a field clogged with liberals, the path to coveted clerkships and jobs was much more open if you were coming from the right. “The question is, how conservative was he? I don’t think even Brett knew at the time,” the classmate said.

Illustration with 3 layered images: school photo of Brett Kavanaugh; hands folded on lap; in judicial robe
Illustration by Oliver Munday; images from Wikimedia; Gabriella Demczuk / Getty

After Kavanaugh completed an unremarkable clerkship, one of his professors recommended him for a prestigious spot with the libertarian Judge Alex Kozinski, on the Ninth Circuit, which then propelled him to a clerkship with Justice Anthony Kennedy. In an arena where Supreme Court clerkships command significant bonuses at big law firms—upwards of $400,000 today—Kavanaugh’s talent for picking the right mentors paid off.

Yet even as he climbed the ladder of Washington’s conservative legal establishment, Kavanaugh remained staunchly nonpartisan in his schmoozing. “He was the kind of conservative you could go out to dinner with,” says Ruth Marcus, a liberal columnist at The Washington Post who knew Kavanaugh early in his career and later wrote a book about him called Supreme Ambition. So when he joined the newly formed special prosecutor’s office investigating some possibly shady real-estate deals made by Bill and Hillary Clinton, his friends took little notice. The job was supposed to last six months at most, after which he would move on to the lucrative career that awaited him.

The early days of Ken Starr’s investigation were relatively quiet. The office was small, and the scope of the inquiry was narrow. Kimberly Wehle, a member of Starr’s team at that time, recalls Kavanaugh as bright and fair and absurdly hardworking. “I remember thinking to myself, That is the kind of person who belongs on the Supreme Court,” she told me. But as the investigation dragged on, growing and mutating and accumulating new targets—from the suicide of Vince Foster to the accusations against President Clinton by Paula Jones to the curious case of a certain White House intern—the environment in the office changed. Starr himself, once considered a leading prospect for the Supreme Court, came to be seen in Washington as a sanctimonious partisan hell-bent on taking down the Clintons. The lawyers who worked for him were recast as foot soldiers in a “vast right-wing conspiracy”—and some of them started to act like it.

Around this time, Kavanaugh went out on a date with Colleen Covell, a young Democratic prosecutor in D.C. When they got to the bar, Covell recalls, Kavanaugh started draining beers at an impressive pace. The more he drank, the more candid he became in his commentary on the Clintons, until eventually he was shouting things like “I can’t believe you voted for him!” and “They’re total crooks!” The intensity of his animus was startling, Covell told me. “I just remember thinking, Whoa, he really hates them.”

By the time Starr’s team turned its attention to Monica Lewinsky, the hothouse environment of the office had taken a toll on Kavanaugh, who had now been there well past six months. Once, amid a debate over whether the president should be asked sexually explicit questions under oath, Kavanaugh fired off a memo to his colleagues advocating for an X-rated line of inquiry. Among his proposed questions: “If Monica Lewinsky says that you inserted a cigar into her vagina while you were in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?” (Robert Bittman, who also worked on Starr’s team, told me that Kavanaugh had written the memo in a fog of sleep deprivation, and that he later expressed regret for its tone.)

The investigation effectively launched Kavanaugh’s career. For all the office’s blunders, the young lawyer was able to forge relationships and bank favors with powerful Republicans, guaranteeing him a plum spot in the next GOP administration. After a stint on the Bush campaign’s legal team during the 2000 Florida recount, Kavanaugh joined the White House counsel’s office. George W. Bush took a liking to him, and eventually nominated him to serve on the prestigious D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Over the next 12 years, Kavanaugh worked to reinvent himself as a respectable, and thoroughly unbiased, jurist with friends in both parties. He appeared frequently on legal panels and was hired to teach at Harvard Law School by its then-dean, Elena Kagan. He even publicly repented for his role in the Starr investigation, writing it off as a kind of youthful indiscretion. As a judge, he spent most of his time on wonky regulatory cases, which meant his conservative voting record attracted little attention in the culture wars. And when a politically charged case did fall into his lap, in 2017—involving an undocumented 17-year-old immigrant seeking an abortion in Texas—Kavanaugh tried to find a middle course. Rather than rule decisively on whether the abortion could proceed, he argued that the government should be given more time to find the young woman a “sponsor” who could help her make the decision. The ruling pleased no one, but it suggested an instinct for caution that made his brand of conservatism palatable in Washington.

Kavanaugh’s rebranding campaign was so successful that, when he was selected for the Supreme Court, an array of bipartisan validators lined up to sing his praises. Amy Chua, the author and legal scholar, wrote an op-ed hailing his mentorship of female clerks. (In fact, her daughter would go on to clerk for Kavanaugh.) Akhil Reed Amar, a liberal law professor at Yale, said Democrats would be hard-pressed to find a conservative nominee better than Kavanaugh.

But some who had closely followed Kavanaugh’s career remained suspicious. “He thinks very much as a partisan,” Garrett Epps, a law professor emeritus at the University of Baltimore, told me. “What has Kavanaugh ever been except the guy clutching onto the greasy pole?”

The Supreme Court is a notoriously opaque institution. Justices rarely give interviews to the press (Kavanaugh declined my request), and clerks are expected to abide by a code of omertà that prevents them from publicly discussing what goes on behind closed doors. This culture of secrecy is encouraged by the Court’s members, who are invested in maintaining the perception that their work is done beyond the reach of rank politics.

But people who have seen the inner workings of the Court say it’s nothing if not political. Tit-for-tat dealmaking is commonplace. Alliances are formed and rivalries fester. In the 1940s, infighting among President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s appointees got so bad that Hugo Black and William O. Douglas are said to have threatened to resign if Robert Jackson was made chief justice. In the 1970s, Potter Stewart leaked damaging stories about his colleagues to the journalist Bob Woodward.

While the judicial sausage-making may be more discreet on today’s Court, a range of people close to the justices—including friends, confidants, and former clerks—told me that Kavanaugh’s arrival in the fall of 2018 occasioned a round of careful internal maneuvering by his new colleagues.

Most of the justices already knew Kavanaugh, and some of them even liked him. He was a regular at holiday parties and the swearing-in ceremonies for new Supreme Court lawyers (often lingering until the last guest left, according to one person). They also knew that he had been nominated at an overheated moment in American politics, by a president whose only inclination was to raise the temperature further. Even before the assault allegations, the regular partisan forces seemed especially girded for war: The day Kavanaugh’s name was put forward, the organizers of the Women’s March accidentally released a fill-in-the-blank statement they had prewritten condemning Trump’s “nomination of XX to the Supreme Court.”

In private, Kavanaugh had expressed his own misgivings about the president who nominated him, even as he went through the requisite motions of flattery and fealty. “He was no fan of Donald Trump,” one friend told me. “But he’s not going to say no to the nomination. He had to kiss the ring to get there.”

Illustration: layered photos of Justices Roberts, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and hand raised for oath of office
Illustration by Oliver Munday; images from Leah Millis; Tom Williams / Getty

Kavanaugh’s future colleagues were primed for sympathy. The justices had long been united in a shared disdain for the confirmation process. The grandstanding senators, the bloodthirsty reporters, the political groups churning out attack ads—to the men and women of the Supreme Court, the whole thing felt like a high-stakes hazing ritual, and they were inclined to give one another the benefit of the doubt. “It’s a highly partisan process, and you have to kind of therefore take the slings and arrows with a grain of salt,” a person close to the Court told me. More to the point, some of the justices recognized an opportunity in Kavanaugh’s uniquely contentious confirmation.

Kagan, an Obama appointee known inside the Court as a deft strategic operator, was quick to make a move. Sensing that Kavanaugh, in this vulnerable moment, might welcome allies wherever he could find them, she launched a quiet charm offensive. While he was still moving into his chambers, Kagan stopped by and offered to host a dinner party in his honor at her Washington apartment. They were seen together frequently—whispering and laughing during oral arguments or talking baseball over lunch in the justices’ private dining hall, where she liked to joke that their conversation was a reprieve from the Shakespearean forays favored by Kavanaugh’s predecessor, Anthony Kennedy. “She saw him as up for grabs,” said one person with knowledge of the Court’s internal dynamics.

The other liberal women on the bench followed Kagan’s lead. Sonia Sotomayor gave an interview in which she welcomed Kavanaugh’s arrival: “This is our work family, and it’s just as important as our personal family.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg praised her new colleague at an event in Washington as “very decent and very smart.” These comments upset some on the left, but they had a strategic purpose. The liberal justices knew Kavanaugh wouldn’t vote with them on a regular basis, but they hoped they could pick off his vote occasionally, when it mattered. Having a relationship would help.

Clarence Thomas, meanwhile, was running his own game. Though he had refused to watch the hearings on principle, he felt he understood better than most what Kavanaugh had gone through. “He had been there,” Armstrong Williams, a longtime friend of Thomas’s, told me. “It was like déjà vu all over again.” Thomas was eager to impart the lessons he’d taken from his own confirmation experience—most important, in his view, that trying to ingratiate yourself with your character assassins was a fool’s errand. “It took Justice Thomas a few years to figure that out,” Williams said. “But now he lets what he does on the Court speak for him—his rulings, his opinions, his dissenting opinions. He can’t do anything about how people talk about him.” According to Williams, Thomas hoped to be an example to Kavanaugh and would indeed be “a good mentor.”

But the justice to whom Kavanaugh gravitated, according to people close to him, was John Roberts. The two men had moved in similar social circles for years—they belonged to the same country club, played in the same poker game—and Kavanaugh had long considered him a role model. He made little secret of his fanboy status: In his D.C. Circuit chambers, a blown-up photograph of himself and “the chief” had hung on the wall. “Brett idolizes John Roberts,” a friend of Kavanaugh’s told me. “If you’re looking for soul-mate types, that’s them.”

Court watchers varied on whether the feeling was mutual, but Roberts had his own reasons to cultivate Kavanaugh. The chief justice is an ardent believer in the idea that the Court’s credibility rests on its image as an apolitical institution. “It’s my job to call balls and strikes,” he famously testified during his confirmation hearing, “not to pitch or bat.” Roberts’s fixation on staving off political backlash had guided much of his tenure. He favored narrow decisions over sweeping ones, resisted establishing broad new precedents, and was said to cut deals with his colleagues behind the scenes to avoid 5–4 rulings in high-profile cases. In 2012, he surprised Court watchers when he cast the deciding vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act. It was later reported that Roberts had initially planned to strike down a key provision of the law but flipped his vote, avoiding the blowback that would have resulted if conservative justices had overturned President Barack Obama’s signature legislation in an election year.

Now Kavanaugh’s crash landing threatened to undo the carefully honed image of the Roberts Court—and maybe even the Court itself. Democrats were openly talking about “packing” the bench with liberal justices if they took back the White House and Congress in 2020, while scholars and commentators tossed around proposals to radically reduce the constitutional power of the judiciary.

Roberts worked to ensure that Kavanaugh’s first term was as uneventful as possible. He maneuvered to clear the docket of abortion cases, and successfully punted a controversial case involving a Christian baker and a same-sex-wedding cake back to the lower courts. In the cases the Court heard, Kavanaugh stuck close to Roberts, voting with him 94 percent of the time.

Observers were quick to note how different Kavanaugh seemed from his fellow Trump appointee, Neil Gorsuch. Though they had known each other since adolescence, when they were two years apart at Georgetown Prep, they were polar opposites. Kavanaugh was the proto–frat bro who organized boozy beach trips for his friends, Gorsuch the know-it-all prig who spent his free time on the debate team. And though they ended up clerking at the same time for Justice Kennedy, they never seemed to warm up to each other. The tense nature of their relationship became a subject of speculation among the Court’s insiders. Some chalked it up to clashing personalities: “Gorsuch has somewhat sharp elbows and a lot of self-regard,” one person told me. Others pointed to signs of a competitive rivalry: When Gorsuch was nominated first for the Supreme Court, in 2017, a restless Kavanaugh began telling friends that he might retire from the D.C. Circuit and make money practicing law.

Whatever the reason, there was no mistaking their divergent styles on the bench. Gorsuch routinely stirred the pot with his purple opinions and grandiose pronouncements, self-consciously positioning himself as the right-wing heir to Antonin Scalia. Kavanaugh, meanwhile, was restrained during oral arguments, quietly siding with the majority most of the time and periodically aligning himself with the liberals. In his first term, he voted with Kagan as often as he did with Gorsuch. When he did come down on the right in a divisive case, he would write a separate opinion explaining himself in almost apologetic terms.

“He really cares how he’s perceived across the ideological spectrum,” David Lat, the founding editor of the influential legal-commentary site Above the Law, told me. “I would say Justice Kavanaugh is trying to be the conservative that people don’t hate.”

So far, Kavanaugh has had limited success in that mission. As he nears the end of his third term on the bench, his judicial record has proved peskily difficult to caricature—solidly conservative but not radically so, prone to incrementalism, disinclined toward culture war. And yet, he remains a magnet for criticism and controversy. Whatever your view of Kavanaugh, you can find evidence that he’s not on your side.

When he cast the deciding vote in a ruling that allowed states to continue practicing partisan gerrymandering, Twitter exploded with calls from the left for his impeachment. Similar outrage met his vote to allow the Trump administration to include a citizenship question on the census, which many regarded as an intimidation tactic designed to undercount immigrants. A number of liberal Court watchers believe that the worst may be yet to come. As a lower-court judge, Kavanaugh showed open antagonism toward what is known as the Chevron doctrine, the legal principle that courts should give great weight to the interpretations adopted by federal agencies as they administer complicated regulations. It may be the one area in which his views are the most hardened. If Kavanaugh leads his conservative colleagues in overturning Chevron, Democrats warn, legal challenges will tie regulators’ hands and hobble the implementation of progressive policies—affecting everything from health care to the environment to corporate oversight.

For some people, of course, the nuances of Kavanaugh’s voting record will always matter less than the fact that he was confirmed after facing a credible accusation of sexual assault. A year after Kavanaugh was sworn in, Christine Blasey Ford was still receiving death threats. The veteran judicial reporter Dahlia Lithwick wrote that she’d been unable to return to the Supreme Court because she was still so angry. Irin Carmon, a feminist journalist who covered the Kavanaugh hearings closely, told me the episode was especially painful because it took place at a moment when accusations of sexual misconduct seemed at last to be taken seriously. “People had started to think this time would be different, and it wasn’t, and that’s why it was so crushing.”

At the same time, Kavanaugh has disappointed many of the right-wing activists who expected the Hulk-like figure from his confirmation hearings to reemerge on the bench. The grumbling began last year, when he voted to allow the Manhattan district attorney access to Donald Trump’s tax records. But frustration really boiled over in February, when his swing vote prevented the Supreme Court from hearing a slate of lawsuits challenging the election results brought by Trump and his allies. Across the Trumpist media, Kavanaugh was derided as a coward and a traitor. John Cardillo, a host at Newsmax, summarized the sentiment on Twitter: “Shame on Kavanaugh for playing ball after they tried to destroy him and his family.”

Even within the more staid precincts of the conservative legal establishment, fears have begun to surface that Kavanaugh might be uniquely vulnerable to “judicial drift”—a phenomenon in which Republican-appointed justices, such as Lewis Powell and Harry Blackmun, grow steadily more liberal the longer they’re on the bench. Even before he was nominated, Kavanaugh had raised concerns at the Federalist Society, which vets the conservative bona fides of judicial candidates. He was added to Trump’s shortlist only after an intense lobbying campaign by Republican friends, most notably Anthony Kennedy, the justice he had clerked for and eventually replaced. Now some Republicans are privately wondering if the scramble to push through his confirmation was worth it. “Might there be some temptation to appease the left? Yeah, there might be,” one Kavanaugh ally told me. “He’s a human, and that’s a very human temptation. But I would be extremely disappointed in him if he were to go south.”

Shortly after Kavanaugh was sworn in, his former clerks gave him a gift: a framed print by the artist Tom Lea accompanied by a quote about living “on the sunrise side of the mountain.” The original painting had hung in George W. Bush’s Oval Office, and the quote was a Bush favorite. Kavanaugh displayed it prominently in his chambers, a pledge to himself that he would remain optimistic.

Kavanaugh knew the first few months would be bad, friends say. The wounds from the confirmation hearings were still fresh; everybody was still angry. So when he had to withdraw from his teaching position at Harvard Law School amid protests—despite his sterling student evaluations—he was stung, but told everyone he understood the situation. And when Matt Damon turned him into a punch line on Saturday Night Live, he gamely insisted that the impression was hilarious. But Kavanaugh was determined not to remain in exile forever. “He thrives on life in the public square,” a friend told me. “He loves it.”

So far, the public square has not been particularly inviting. At the Federalist Society’s 2019 annual dinner, his keynote speech—a rite of passage for new conservative justices—was repeatedly derailed by liberal protesters. At a Georgetown Prep homecoming game, he reportedly had to ask alumni to put down their beers before he would pose for photos with them. Even venturing to Mass or the grocery store meant subjecting himself to a potential confrontation or a nosy neighbor overinterpreting his every move.

The drumbeat of negative media coverage has yet to relent. This spring, when Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse called on the Justice Department to investigate the FBI’s 2018 background check of Kavanaugh, suggesting that it was “fake,” a round of sensational headlines followed. (“Could Brett Kavanaugh Be Booted From the Supreme Court?Vanity Fair asked.) His conservative colleagues might let stories like that roll off their backs, but Kavanaugh is hyper-attentive to the press. “I don’t think Thomas or Alito gives a shit what The New York Times says about them,” one friend told me. “But I think Brett does.”

The pandemic has only heightened the sense of isolation. Last year, for the first time in its history, the Supreme Court began operating remotely, conducting oral arguments and most other business by conference call. Kavanaugh, who unlike most of his colleagues still has school-age children (plus a noisy dog), found working from home untenable, according to one friend, and continued to commute into Washington, where he spent most of his time alone in his spacious chambers.

People close to Kavanaugh say it’s only a matter of time before he attempts some kind of rehabilitation tour—an interview in a mainstream news outlet, perhaps, followed by a handful of public lectures. But he’s been careful not to move too fast. Time is one thing a 56-year-old Supreme Court justice with a lifetime appointment has plenty of.

For now, observers are left to speculate about what fundamentally drives Kavanaugh. Most of his friends seem to believe that the partisan revenge fantasy feared by the left and craved by the right is unlikely to materialize. He’s an affable guy, they all insist—he simply wants everyone to like him again. (Some even wonder if he regrets being tapped. “If he had it to do over again, knowing what would happen, would he accept the nomination?” a person close to Kavanaugh asked. “I honestly don’t know.”) But squint again at the story of Kavanaugh’s rise, and a different picture might come into view: a credential-obsessed meritocrat who’s spent his life sweatily striving for power without any grounding in conviction or principle.

Which brings us back to the nature of the Supreme Court itself. There may be no greater indictment of America’s democratic system than the fact that Brett Kavanaugh’s feelings are so potentially consequential. But at a moment when the Court is routinely called upon to fill the void left by a dysfunctional political system, a single justice has enormous power to set policy and settle national debates. If Kavanaugh is “dangerous,” as his critics contend, it’s not because he is part of some brazen right-wing conspiracy. It’s because he has managed to ascend to the height of American power while remaining, perhaps even to himself, a living Rorschach test.


This article appears in the June 2021 print edition with the headline “Whose Side Is Kavanaugh On?”