The Amnesia of Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), gestures while questioning Judge Robert Bork during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 16, 1987. The committee is holding hearings on Bork's nomination to become a Supreme Court Justice. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

To listen to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT-BeenThereTooDamnLong), you’d think the Senate Judiciary Committee has always behaved in a gentlemanly, deliberate fashion, and these bitter partisans led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are making a mockery of the institution by “rushing” the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.


He continued:

“Judge Kavanaugh, there are so many things wrong with this committee’s vetting of your record, it is hard to know where to begin. I’ve been on this committee under Republican and Democrat leadership. I never thought the committee would sink to this. In fact, you shouldn’t be sitting before us today. You should be sitting in front of us only after we’ve completed a review of your record. Your vetting is less than 10 percent complete. In critical ways our committee is abandoning its tradition of exhaustively vetting Supreme Court nominees.”

Video below:

Whoa!! Something horrible must be going on!

They’re not “abandoning [their] tradition of exhaustively vetting Supreme Court nominees.” As Andrew Cohen wrote at The Atlantic in December, 2012 (just after former SCOTUS nominee Robert Bork passed away):


“Throughout the long history of court appointments, confirmations had rarely been detailed affairs. In 1962, for example, John F. Kennedy appointee Byron White was questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee for all of 11 minutes. In fact, it wasn’t until 1925 that a Supreme Court nominee (Harlan Fiske Stone) even appeared before the committee and it was another 14 years before a second (Felix Frankfurter) did so.”

Dick Durbin joined Leahy in his hyperbolic hand-wringing and virtue signaling:

“This is a different hearing for the Supreme Court than I have ever been through. It is different in what has happened in this room just this morning. What we have heard is the noise of democracy….

“Why is this happening for the first time in the history of this Committee? I think we need to be honest about why it is happening. I think it is the same reason why when I go to Illinois after being in this public service job for over 30 years, I hear a question that I have never ever heard before, repeatedly. As people pull me to the side and say, “Senator, are we going to be all right? Is America going to be all right?” They are genuinely concerned about the future of this country.”

To what does Durbin refer when he says “This is a different hearing” and “what has happened in this room just this morning.” Why is “what” happening? The protests? The posturing and preening and pandering?


Or maybe he’s referring to the a$$hole-ish challenge he gave Judge Kavanaugh:

Durbin said:

“If  you believe that your public record is one that you can stand behind and defend, I hope that at the end of this you will ask this committee to suspend until we are given all the documents, until we have the time to review them, and then we resume this hearing. What I’m saying to you is basically this: If you trust the American people, they will trust you….”

I don’t think it’s the American people Kavanaugh needs to be convinced to trust. Durbin continued:

“When I was a practicing lawyer, a long time ago, in trial, and the other side either destroyed or concealed evidence I knew that I was going to have a convincing argument to close that case. What were they hiding? Why won’t they let you see…the documents they just can’t find. You know that presumption now is against you, because of all the documents that have been held back. For the sake of this nation, for the sanctity of the Constitution that we both honor, step up. Ask this gathering to suspend until all of the documents of your public career are there for the American people to see.”


How did we get here? If you’re over the age of 45 and paid attention to politics in the 1980s, the tone will seem familiar to you. “This” started, many court watchers and pundits agree, with the confirmation hearing of Robert Bork and, specifically, Ted Kennedy’s “Borking” in June, 1987.

Kennedy said:

“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government….

“In Robert Bork’s America there is no room at the inn for blacks and no place in the Constitution for women, and in our America there should be no seat on the supreme court for Robert Bork. Mr. Bork has been equally extreme in his opposition to the right to privacy.”

Ethan Bronner, who covered the Bork hearings for The Boston Globe, wrote:

“Kennedy’s was an altogether startling statement. He had shamelessly twisted Bork’s world view….”

“The speech was a landmark for judicial nominations. Kennedy was saying that no longer should the Senate content itself with examining a nominee’s personal integrity and legal qualifications…. From now on the Senate and the nation should examine a nominee’s vision for society … the upper house should take politics and ideology fully into account.”


In the wake of Kennedy’s effective character assassination and hyperbole, the atmosphere of judicial confirmation hearings was changed forever.

“No reasonable person today can contend that judicial nomination proceedings are more insightful and productive in the wake of the Bork hearing.

“The Bork hearing didn’t reverse a century of transparency in the process. But it certainly assured that no such transparency and candor would ever come again. The self-defeating lesson which official Washington took from the political savagery of the 1987 proceedings was that nominees were better off saying nothing publicly about their views of the law and were better off serving up empty platitudes when backed into a corner by their Judiciary Committee inquisitors.”

That change was extremely visible during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings a few years later. Though the Democrats lost that battle, they majorly damaged Thomas’ reputation, and the questions of Anita Hill by both parties were disgusting (particularly Biden and Specter) and had no place in that hearing.

It’s time to remind Leahy, Durbin, Feinstein, and the rest about the disgusting spectacles they foisted on the American people during the Bork and Thomas confirmation hearings. Based on their remarks today, it’s they, not any Republicans, who will create a similar spectacle during this hearing.



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