President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday as he aimed to entrench its conservative control for years to come, but the federal appeals court judge faces a tough confirmation fight in the bitterly divided Senate.
While some Democrats promised a stern effort to block the 53-year-old Kavanaugh - who has served 12 years on the most influential U.S. appeals court - Trump’s fellow Republicans control the Senate by a narrow margin and can ensure confirmation if they avoid defections from their ranks.
If confirmed, Kavanaugh would replace long-serving conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement on June 27 at age 81. Kavanaugh became Trump’s second lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest judicial body in his 18 months in office.
Kavanaugh is a well-known figure in Washington and has been involved in some of the biggest controversies of the past two decades. He helped investigate Democratic former President Bill Clinton in the 1990s working for independent counsel Kenneth Starr. He was on Republican George W. Bush’s team in the contentious Florida recount fight in the 2000 presidential election, then served as a senior official in Bush’s White House.
“Throughout legal circles he’s considered a judge’s judge, a true thought leader among his peers,” Trump, who named conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the court last year, told an applauding audience in the White House East Room.
“He’s a brilliant jurist with a clear and effective writing style, universally regarded as one of the finest and sharpest legal minds of our time. And just like Justice Gorsuch, he excelled as a legal clerk for Justice Kennedy,” Trump added, saying Kavanaugh “deserves a swift confirmation and robust bipartisan support.”
The appointment will not change the ideological breakdown of a court that already has a 5-4 conservative majority, but nevertheless could move the court to the right. Kennedy sometimes joined the liberal justices on key rulings on divisive social issues like abortion and gay rights, a practice his replacement may not duplicate.
Kavanaugh has amassed a solidly conservative judicial record since 2006 on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the same court where three current justices including Chief Justice John Roberts previously served. Some conservative activists have questioned whether he would rule sufficiently aggressively as a justice.
Like the 50-year-old Gorsuch, Kavanaugh potentially could serve on the high court for decades. Trump’s other leading candidates for the post were fellow federal appellate judges Thomas Hardiman, Raymond Kethledge and Amy Coney Barrett.
“My judicial philosophy is straightforward: a judge must be independent and must interpret the law, not make the law. A judge must interpret statutes as written. And a judge must interpret the Constitution as written, informed by history, and tradition and precedent,” Kavanaugh said during the ceremony in which he emphasized his family and his Roman Catholic faith.
Kavanaugh survived a protracted confirmation fight after Bush picked nominated him to the appeals court in 2003. Some Democrats accused him of excessive partisanship, and it took three years before the Senate eventually voted to confirm him.
Republicans hold a slim 51-49 Senate majority, and with ailing Senator John McCain battling cancer in his home state of Arizona they currently can muster only 50 votes. Senate rules still leave Democrats with scant options to block confirmation by themselves, though Trump must prevent Republican defections.
Moderate Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski said they could carefully vet Kavanaugh before deciding how to vote. Democratic senators serving in Republican-leaning states including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota made similar remarks, though top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer blasted Trump’s pick.