Kavanaugh says respects abortion precedent, asserts autonomy

Michael Mathes
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US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh faces a grilling on the second day of his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee

President Donald Trump's US Supreme Court nominee said Wednesday he would not let political pressure threaten his judicial independence, as he assured senators he respected the landmark legal precedent protecting abortion rights.

On the second day of Judge Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing, lawmakers took their first opportunity to grill him over the administration's withholding of documents from his time in the Bush White House, gun legislation, and whether a sitting president can be compelled to respond to a subpoena.

The 53-year-old conservative jurist was tapped by the president to succeed retiring justice Anthony Kennedy -- often the swing vote in the country's highest court -- in a lifetime appointment.

Should he win confirmation, Kavanaugh would be Trump's second nominee on the nine-member bench, and could solidify a hard-right court majority and help shape key aspects of American society for a generation.

Kavanaugh -- a deeply controversial figure seen by progressives as a threat to women's healthcare rights -- was asked about Roe v Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that protects the right to abortion.

He told the Senate Judiciary Committee he considered it "settled as a precedent of the Supreme Court."

"I understand how passionately and how deeply people feel on this issue," he assured Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who told Kavanaugh she did not want America to return to "those death tolls" from illegal abortions.

"I don't live in a bubble, I live in the real world," said the judge, who sits on the US Court of Appeals in Washington. "I understand the importance of the issue."

Trump campaigned on a promise to nominate pro-life judges and justices, and Democrats worry that Kavanaugh will seek to roll back abortion rights if he wins the backing of a straight majority in the 100-member Senate.

"If Brett Kavanaugh becomes a Supreme Court justice, will he help gut or overturn Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in America?" tweeted Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. "Yes, of course he will."

- 'Loyalty' to US Constitution -

Senate Democrat Dick Durbin pressed Kavanaugh over his dissenting opinion in a 2017 case involving a pregnant undocumented immigrant. He argued that the detained 17-year-old needed to be transferred to an "immigration sponsor" before being immediately allowed an abortion.

Kavanaugh said he followed Supreme Court precedent, but Durbin disagreed.

"I did my level best in an emergency posture," Kavanaugh said.

Democrats have voiced concern about the nominee's views on the scope of presidential power.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch bluntly asked Kavanaugh what loyalty he owes Trump.

"I owe my loyalty to the Constitution," Kavanaugh responded, holding up his tattered copy of the document.

"No one is above the law," including those in the executive branch, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kavanaugh described himself as an "independent" federal judge whose decisions are founded on law and precedent -- "not based on policy, not based on political pressure."

As an example of precedent, he cited US v Nixon, the Supreme Court's unanimous 1974 ruling that president Richard Nixon was required to comply with a subpoena seeking the Watergate tapes.

- Presidential immunity -

In past comments, Kavanaugh has supported an expansion of presidential immunity from prosecution -- a dramatic shift from his recommendation for strong action against then-president Bill Clinton when Kavanaugh assisted in a 1990s investigation against him.

Asked Wednesday by Feinstein whether a sitting president can be forced to respond to a subpoena, he demurred: "I can't give you an answer on that hypothetical question."

Several of his remarks appeared aimed at assuaging Democratic concerns. He portrayed himself as a "civil" judge and an admirer of the 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision that ended segregation laws, calling it "the greatest moment in Supreme Court history."

The hearing got off to a chaotic start Tuesday, when Democrats sought a postponement over thousands of withheld documents pertaining to Kavanaugh's time in the George W. Bush White House.

Republican Senator John Cornyn branded the chaos "mob rule."

Protesters on Wednesday repeatedly brought the hearing to a pause before they were ejected.

"If you love America, stop this travesty!" boomed one woman.

Republicans hold a one-vote Senate majority. Should a single Republican oppose Kavanaugh, it could throw his confirmation into jeopardy, although there has been little sign that any GOP senator was prepared to buck the president.

Trump said he listened to a few minutes of Wednesday's hearing, and concluded that Kavanaugh displayed an "outstanding intellect."

"Really, the other side should embrace him," Trump said.