Disorder in the Court: Confirming a New Supreme Court Justice amidst Bitter Partisanship

By Matison Hearn-Desautels

Bret Kavanaugh’s confirmation process has provoked a nationwide dispute over the state of American democracy, partisanship, and the lack of accountability for men in power accused of sexual assault and other sex-related criminal acts. His confirmation on Saturday solidified a conservative majority in the Supreme Court for years to come. The 5-4 majority could determine the outcomes of key juridical matters ranging from a possible indictment of the President, to a potential repeal of Roe versus Wade.

The Senate Judiciary Committee moved to confirm Kavanaugh on Friday following a week-long FBI investigation into the allegations made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her while the two were in high school.

Protesters flooded Capitol Hill throughout the week to voice their opposition to Kavanaugh’s confirmation and nearly 300 were arrested on Thursday for demonstrating without a license. Despite these civic protests and the political contention surrounding Kavanaugh’s nomination, the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh 50 to 48 votes in one of the closest margins in history and with only two Senators breaking the party line.

The partisan politics on display throughout Kavanaugh’s confirmation process is yet another example of a country deeply divided over key issues and values, which raises questions about the status and performance of American democracy. Advocates of women’s rights ask how government leadership can be trusted to represent women and their interests as survivors of sexual assault are demonized and dismissed in the nation’s most influential political arenas.

Mere days after Bill Cosby was charged with three to ten years in prison in a relative victory for the #MeToo movement, which has brought attention to the many cases of men abusing their power in the form of sexual violence, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford appeared in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee to deliver a moving account of her alleged sexual assault by Kavanaugh. Since Dr. Ford came forward, she has been put under a national microscope which has questioned her character, memory, and motives. She and her family have received death threats, have been forced to move several times, and have had to hire a security detail.

Dr. Ford’s testimony was followed by Kavanaugh’s, which showed the then-nominee belligerent and defensive. He expressed hurt and anger that his legacy has been tainted by these accusations, and further highlighted the distress his family has come under since then. He delivered a lengthy account of all he has done for women in the legal field. In my view, hiring women do not earn you a gold star, and certainly, do not disprove allegations of sexual assault or aggressive masculine behavior.

Kavanaugh vehemently and ragefully denied the allegations made against him by a woman who claimed to be traumatized for decades by his actions. His defensiveness and lack of comportment, as well as his clear disdain towards the critics and the allegations of sexual assault, attest to the unequal – at times vitriolic – gender dynamics of this political moment.

Since Trump’s presidency, it has been increasingly apparent that virulent masculinity and nondemocracy are feeding off each other. At least three of the highest positions in the government – two Supreme Court seats and the presidency – are held by men accused of sex-related offenses. President Donald Trump has been accused by at least 12 women of sexual misconduct, including assault and rape, while Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been accused of sexual harassment by former employee Anita Hill. All women accusers have been defamed and blamed for ruining the legacy of the powerful men they accused, while the accused remain in leadership positions.

Sexual assault has become yet another contentious subject that is polarizing the United States in an age of dismayingly partisan politics. The country is divided between those who are angry and hurt by the apparent lack of accountability for sexual misconduct in the nation’s highest positions, and those who, like President Trump, believe that the nation’s young men are under attack by false accusations of sexual assault.

The silver lining – if there is one – to Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation is the potential for voters to express their desire for change during the upcoming midterm elections. Many expect massive voter turnout on November 6th due to energized partisan bases.

But national trust in the highest political and juridical positions is low, tainted by partisanship and grievances on both sides. Polarization drives mistrust, which can translate to repeated abuse of power within the leadership and disillusionment from the citizenry. This risks breaking down democratic processes such as voting. In order for the Americans to regain trust in their government, we must start by addressing accountability issues in a systematic way across partisan lines.

Matison Hearn-Desautels is the Assistant Editor for the Democracy and Society journal. She is a Master’s candidate in Democracy and Governance at Georgetown University.