Sports Editor Abby Rubel and Staff Writer Henry Golub attended the American Voter Project’s panel on the Supreme Court confirmation of now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The Project is a series of forums that connects “scholars, politicians, journalists, activists, artists, students, and community members” to explore issues facing American voters and helps Columbia students apply Core Curriculum principles to modern issues. The pair heard from former Attorney General Eric Holder, CC ’73, Law ’76, and other law experts in the Miller Theater.
The panel, planned before the allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh came to light, attracted a large number of students and faculty, who lined the sidewalk outside the theater and packed the auditorium. Columbia Law professor Bernard E. Harcourt moderated the discussion between the four panelists—General Holder, Professor Olatunde Johnson, Professor Jamal Greene, and Adam Liptak, the Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times. A Q&A session followed.
The panelists spoke about the impact Kavanaugh’s nomination had on everything from the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to America’s political climate and voters.
Liptak, though concerned about Kavanaugh’s “starkly partisan language” at the Senate hearings, avoided darkly prophetic language. He explained that the atmosphere of the court remains genial, and that the justices were in good spirits at Kavanaugh’s first few cases this week. Some even made jokes on the bench. He also pointed out, however, that the justices might be feigning composure to maintain the Court’s authority.
Liptak did warn the audience of SCOTUS’s increasing politicization. Since 2010, justices have reliably voted in line with the party that appointed them, and the Senate has confirmed the past two justices on a slim margin. It’s a “bad, bad, bad sign,” he said.
Johnson mentioned that before last month, she had never seen Americans pay so much attention to a Supreme Court confirmation. Even before Dr. Blasey Ford publicly accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, animosity lingered from the Republicans’ treatment of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, and from the 2016 election. The pre-existing tension had already inflamed the left and the right.
Dr. Ford, however, raised the stakes. Johnson explained that Kavanaugh’s confirmation convinced many of her students that sexual assault victims’ stories have little influence on powerful men.
Greene, who attended the Senate hearings as an aide to Senator Kamala Harris, left feeling jaded. Many of Kavanaugh’s responses—in addition to those concerning Dr. Ford—skirted questions. He often refused, for instance, to comment on any “political” matter. To help Harris prepare for questioning Kavanaugh, Greene acted as the future justice, responding as he thought Kavanaugh would. Although he was initially nervous, he said that role playing actually came quite easily: “You pick one of six responses off a shelf.”
General Holder, who described Kavanaugh’s confirmation process as “absurd,” said that “we won’t return to business as usual for a long time.” Holder has spent the past two years working to end partisan gerrymandering by talking to voters around the country. He suspects that the confirmation process has hardly affected the Republican base, but has earned the left significant support—particularly among suburban white women. Holder cautioned, however, that this newfound enthusiasm might be a short term boost, a “sugar high.”
The former Attorney General also suggested a radical solution to turmoil over the Supreme Court: an 18-year term limit for justices. Three senatorial terms, he explained, would be long enough to insulate justices from politics, but short enough to decrease the weight of each appointment. The audience met his proposal with applause.
Although the prospect seems extreme to most Americans, Liptak pointed out that the US is the only developed nation without term limits or fixed retirement ages for justices. Lifetime appointments give each justice decades to shape the Court, and they allow for “strategic retirements” that have even longer ramifications.
General Holder ended the event on a solemn pronouncement: If Americans don’t get out and vote, “the progress we’ve made as a nation will be put at risk.” But he seemed optimistic that if the Democrats get a Congressional majority in the midterms, Congress will provide a check on President Trump.
Eric Holder via Columbia University
An Upright Citizen via Wikimedia Commons
Two Columbia Alums via Obama White House