By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When it became clear that President Donald Trump was seriously considering nominating Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, the conservative judge’s former law clerks swung into action as among his most energetic public cheerleaders.
But in making the case for him in the media on issues including his stance toward abortion, healthcare and an expansive view of religious liberty, they may have opened up lines of attack on Kavanaugh by Democrats and liberal advocacy groups seeking to derail his nomination in the U.S. Senate.
Trump named Kavanaugh, 53, on July 9 to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. Before he can assume the lifetime job on the nine-member court, the Senate must vote to confirm him. No date has yet been set for the customary Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings.
Kavanaugh has served for 12 years on an influential federal appeals court in Washington. Several of the 48 lawyers who served as his clerks – a year-long job working for a judge, usually straight out of law school – appeared on cable TV shows, wrote opinion articles and spoke to reporters, often trying to shore up support among conservatives.
Their comments may have helped Kavanaugh’s cause before Trump nominated him by pushing back on complaints by some conservatives that the judge would not lean far enough to the right on social issues like abortion as well as on a conservative legal challenge to the Obamacare healthcare law.
But the chief threat to Trump’s nominee now is the Democratic campaign to block Kavanaugh’s confirmation in a Senate in which the president’s fellow Republicans hold a slim 51-49 majority.
Of the 48 clerks, 34 signed a letter calling for the Senate to confirm his appointment. Many secured prestigious Supreme Court clerkships after working for Kavanaugh and subsequently landed jobs at law firms, law schools and in government.
‘ROCK SOLID RECORD’
One clerk, Sarah Pitlyk, wrote a piece for the conservative National Review a week before the nomination was announced in which she touted Kavanaugh’s “clear, consistent and rock solid record on the issues that matter most to social conservatives.”
Pitlyk, who could not be reached for comment, said that “no court of appeals judge in the nation has a stronger more consistent record” than Kavanaugh on “protecting religious liberty and enforcing restrictions on abortion.”
Democrats have raised the possibility that the Supreme Court, with Trump’s appointment of a second justice in Kavanaugh, could overturn the landmark 1973 ruling legalizing abortion nationwide. Conservatives had advocated a broad view of religious liberty and free speech, arguing for example that certain types of businesses can refuse to serve gay couples if they have a religious objection to same-sex marriage.
Another clerk, Justin Walker, wrote an article in another conservative publication, The Federalist, defending Kavanaugh against criticism from the right about a 2011 opinion he wrote concerning Democratic former President Barack Obama’s 2010 healthcare law.
Walker talked up Kavanaugh’s conservative credentials on Fox News ahead of the nomination. “He is a warrior with a backbone of iron,” Walker told Fox, also calling Kavanaugh “a fighter for conservative legal principles” who would not “go wobbly” if appointed to the Supreme Court.
“I felt like his record was being misrepresented,” Walker said in an interview, adding that he was speaking only about Kavanaugh’s approach to the law, not his politics.
Christopher Kang, who worked in the Obama White House and helped with the nominations of liberal Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, said he was surprised by some of the comments by Kavanaugh’s clerks.
“I think that is really striking. We would not have used clerks to talk about a judge’s political philosophy,” said Kang, who now works for Demand Justice, a liberal group that opposes Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Supreme Court nominees routinely try to avoid being pinned down during confirmation hearings on how they would rule on given issues, especially controversial ones like abortion. But some of the comments made by clerks, Kang said, will “make it harder” for Kavanaugh to fend off questions about whether he will rule conservatively on social issues.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Will Dunham)