In the fall of 2018, few things riveted the attention of Americans like the hearings on the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court. The story unfolded with the high drama of a suspense novel, with unexpected twists and turns, heroes and villains, and a theme of the utter divisive ruthlessness that pervades American culture.
Writing from a conservative but balanced perspective, Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino tell the story of what happened in Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court. Hemingway, senior editor at The Federalist, and Serevino, chief counsel and policy director for the Judicial Crisis Network, provide an in-depth researched and highly readable account of the nomination, hearings, and eventual confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh.
The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy lit the match. Kennedy was the sharply divided court’s pivot. For some cases, he joined the conservatives; in others, he joined the liberal or progressive justices. Within minutes of his retirement announcement and before the identity of the nominee was known, the battle was underway.
Hemingway and Serevino provide extensive background on the various main players involved and the precursors to the fight over Kavanaugh, specifically the nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. They examine how events unfolded, the role played by abortion, and the underlying mistrust by conservatives and centrist voters over what happens to supposedly conservative judges when they reach the court (or whether they were really conservative in the first place – Harry Blackmun, who wrote the Roe v. Wade opinion, was appointed by Richard Nixon; David Souter by George H.W. Bush; and Anthony Kennedy by Ronald Reagan).
The Kavanaugh story is one with a lot of moving parts – history, politics, personalities, surprises, and more. The authors manage to keep the parts moving forward and together in a cohesive narrative. They detail the remarkable events that unfolded – The admission by U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein that she had received the letter accusing Kavanaugh two months before the hearings started but didn’t mention it until it appeared Kavanaugh’s nomination was assured; the sincerity of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of a sexual attack when they were teenagers; the jeremiad of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham against the Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee; Brett Kavanaugh’s passionate defense; and the speech by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, explaining why she was voting to confirm Kavanaugh.
We also see the less-than-remarkable events – attorney Michael Avenatti claiming he was representing a victim of Kavanaugh as well; the woman who claimed she had been attacked, only to backtrack and said she made her statement because she felt “empowered;” the details of the political machines on both sides of the controversy; and the less-than-journalistically-stellar performances by the national news media.
While they reflect a conservative viewpoint, the authors are surprisingly fair, acknowledging missteps, exaggerations, and blatant lies on both sides. And they raise questions that need to be asked about the role of politics and the court, how court nominations have become weaponized, the role of due process of law, and other subjects important to the functioning of the U.S> government.
To read Justice on Trial is to relive the national trauma of the fall of 2018. It’s a hard story to read, but it goes to the heart of the beliefs and actions that are tearing at the fabric of national life.