Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh.
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Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the golden child of Washington’s “respectable” right, is on the verge of confirmation to the Supreme Court, fulfilling the decades-long conservative project of taking over American courts. His anointment had seemed inevitable until last weekend, when Christine Blasey Ford came forward to say that when she was around 15 years old, Kavanaugh held her down, pinned her to a bed, and attempted to pull her clothes off, holding his hand over her mouth to silence her screams. Her story is corroborated by a polygraph test and therapist’s notes from years ago; Kavanaugh has denied it unequivocally.
Now, Professor Ford may testify before the Senate, in an eerie reliving of Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony on the eve of Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation. Hill had to recount, on a national stage, the sexual harassment that she says Thomas subjected to her while working at Department of Education and the EEOC (charged with enforcing civil rights!). Thomas, Hill testified, would call her into his office to to tell them about how he enjoyed watching pornography featuring rape scenes and an actor named Long Dong Silver. She ignited a national revolution in attitudes about sexual harassment, laying the groundwork for #MeToo — but it didn’t matter. Hill was smeared. The Senate declined to hear her many corroborating witnesses. Thomas was confirmed.
If Professor Ford agrees to testify about her experience, she will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee almost exactly 27 years after Anita Hill. Unsurprisingly, Republicans are already whipping out the same weapons: Senator Orrin Hatch has called her credibility into question, saying she’s “mixed up” and “mistaken” — stopping just shy of calling her a liar — and pundits have accused her of being an “opportunist.” GOP Chairman Chuck Grassley also plans to exclude testimony from key witnesses like Kavanaugh’s high-school friend Mark Judge, who Ford said watched the assault (and whose yearbook quote read that “[c]ertain women should be struck regularly, like gongs”) and refuses to wait for an fact-finding investigation by the FBI. Anita Hill testified before an all-male panel. Today, men outnumber women on the panel 17 to 4 — with not a single woman on the GOP side. History repeats itself, but it’s usually a little less blatant than this.
If Kavanaugh is confirmed, two out of nine justices on the United States Supreme Court — a full third of the male justices — will have been credibly accused of doing serious harm to women and given lifetime appointments anyway.
Contrary to what some of Kavanaugh’s defenders have insinuated, Kavanaugh and Thomas’s alleged disregard for women isn’t just a “personal” problem. On the bench, they can — and will — translate it into law. In 2000, Clarence Thomas provided the fifth vote needed to strike down a key provision of the Violence Against Women Act, which would have granted victims of gender-based violence the right to sue their perpetrators in civil court. He provided a fifth vote in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which allowed for-profit corporations to decide whether their employers had access to contraception, and voted to curtail equal-pay protections in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire. As Jill Abramson noted, Thomas also cast the key fifth vote in Vance v. Ball State University, a decision dramatically limiting avenues for holding bosses who do the very things he allegedly did to Hill accountable.
Judge Kavanaugh has been credibly accused of sexually assaulting a young woman, attempting to take control of her body. He was nominated by a president who has been accused by at least 17 women of harassment, groping, and assault. If he is confirmed, he would be the crucial swing vote deciding whether to overturn or undermine Roe v. Wade, with the power to impose his will on the bodies of girls and women across America who don’t want to be pregnant. It’s very possible, even likely, that a man accused of respecting women’s bodies and autonomy so little that he put his hand over Christine Blasey Ford’s mouth to silence her screams will decide whether we are forced to give birth against our wills. He’d have control over whether transgender women can be ruthlessly denied medically necessary health care and over how much Title IX demands schools do to combat sexual harassment, over the growing ways that employers sweep workplace discrimination under the rug.
As justices, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh would have the final say over our rights to abortion, in the workplace, and in the public sphere for decades to come. Judge Kavanaugh is only 53 years old. He could have this power over all of our bodies for a lifetime.
For the GOP, this is a feature, not a bug. When Justice Kennedy retired, opening the door to the end of Roe, Rebecca Traister wrote that we were living under the “suffocating power of minority rule.” Kavanaugh’s nomination was always about entrenching the power of wealthy men over everyone else — women, disenfranchised black voters, immigrants torn apart from their children, working people without health care. Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to preserve the system of power that turns boys like Brett Kavanaugh into “highly respected and high-ranking members of society” in Washington, while making it untenable for women Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill to seek recourse when male aggression throws their lives off track. The same system of power prompts his defenders to say powerful men like Kavanaugh should be completely excused for their behavior at 17, while prosecuting poor black 17-year-olds as adults.
When asked whether the allegations against Kavanaugh should disqualify him from serving on the Supreme Court, Ed Rollins, the co-chairman of the pro-Trump Great America PAC, told the Daily Beast, “If this is the new standard, no one will ever want to or be able to serve in government or on the judiciary.” That’s only true if you have a very particular idea of who counts as “everyone.” If this had been the standard all along, Anita Hill, Professor Ford, or the brilliant female lawyers who say they were abused by Kavanaugh’s judicial mentor might have gone on to be judges instead.