The Senate Judiciary Committee’s deliberations and in-fighting over the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court are not over, but with few exceptions, the tone of this week’s hearings have been noticeably more civil than those of either Justice Neil Gorsuch or Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the last two justices that were confirmed.
I believe the relatively collegial atmosphere of this week was caused by the general elections coming up on November 3. With no senator or party willing to risk a big accusation or engage in grandstanding that could backfire at the ballot box, committee members minded their manners. At least most of the time.
Perhaps the first-time viewer would disagree with me as the senators on each side of the dais traded barbs and engaged in vigorous disagreement over everything from President Trump’s tweets, to Roe v. Wade, to presidential pardons, to characterizations of Judge Barrett’s judicial record. But the level of rancor was nothing you wouldn’t see in a regular Senate floor speech in a debate over, say, a coronavirus stimulus bill.
If Justice Kavanaugh’s hearings, which included accusations of sexual assault and gang rape, could be described with an analogy to a military rating of “DEFCON 5” for severity, Judge Barrett’s hearings thus far have barely moved the needle to “DEFCON 1.”
I’ve now watched and listened to seven Supreme Court confirmation hearings gavel to gavel, beginning with Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005, and I have never witnessed so many senators referring to each other by their first names, especially when things got testy. It seemed both sides of the aisle wanted to keep the verbal combat from getting out of hand.
Even when Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., accused committee Republicans of hypocrisy during Thursday’s session, and was challenged by Senator John Kennedy, R-La., the exchange was polite.
This was not the same committee that in 2018 at the Kavanaugh hearings caused Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to angrily declare “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020. To my Republican colleagues, if you vote ‘no’, you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing that I have seen in my time in politics.”
Graham is now the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, and his easy-going demeanor and deference to Democrats and Republicans alike this week kept the proceedings on an even keel.
Even an off-the-wall question from Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, about sexual assault didn’t derail the proceedings. On Tuesday, as part of her questioning, Hirono asked Judge Barrett, “Since you became a legal adult, have you ever made unwanted requests for sexual favors, or committed any physical or verbal harassment or assault of a sexual nature?”
When Barrett simply answered, “No, Senator,” to that and a follow-up question, the moment passed and the hearing went on as if nothing unusual had occurred.
That Hirono was the only questioner to mention sexual assault at all was a refreshing reminder that these hearings have come a long way from the Kavanaugh confirmation days.
None of this new-found camaraderie on the committee means that there still won’t be fireworks. Democrats on the committee have not ruled out the use of procedural roadblocks to Barrett’s nomination such as not showing up to provide a quorum at the scheduled October 22 business meeting of the committee where a vote on her is supposed to take place.
But I’m guessing – or at least hoping – that all members of the Senate will continue to tread only on commonly accepted debating turf for the remainder of the Barrett confirmation fight. If so, and whether or not Barrett is ultimately confirmed by the Senate, the nation will be grateful that it has not been dragged down another destructive and depressing cultural hole.
Photo is from Reuters.