Democrats press Trump’s Supreme Court pick over abortion and race issues

By Lawrence Hurley and Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats pressed Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court pick, over newly released emails highlighting his views on abortion and race issues on Thursday during his Senate confirmation hearing after a tense partisan fight over the public release of the documents.

The documents made public on Thursday dated from Kavanaugh’s service in the White House under Republican President George W. Bush more than a decade ago. Democrats had objected to an earlier decision by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican leadership not to make the emails public.

The third day of the confirmation hearing of the conservative federal appeals court judge selected by Trump for a lifetime post on the high court again was repeatedly interrupted by protesters hostile to Kavanaugh.

In a 2003 email, Kavanaugh suggested striking a line from a draft opinion piece that had stated “it is widely accepted by legal scholars across the board that Roe v. Wade and its progeny are the settled law of the land,” saying that the Supreme Court could overturn it.

Asked about that document, Kavanaugh said he suggested the change because he thought the draft language was overstating the thinking of legal scholars at the time. He again declined to say whether the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, Roe v. Wade, was correctly decided, though he indicated – as he also had on Wednesday – that it is a decision that merits respect.

“Roe v. Wade is an important precedent of the Supreme Court. It has been reaffirmed many times,” Kavanaugh told the panel.

Democratic Senator Cory Booker focused on an email he said described Kavanaugh’s views as a Bush White House aide on the use of “racial profiling” in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda Islamist militant group.

In the 2002 email, Kavanaugh said that although he favored race-neutral policies in policing, there was an “interim question of what to do before a truly effective and comprehensive race-neutral system is developed and implemented.”

Kavanaugh wrote in another email from 2001 that some U.S. Transportation Department affirmative action regulations used “a lot of legalisms and disguises to mask what is a naked racial set-aside.” Affirmative action refers to policies that favor groups like racial minorities in practices such as hiring that have experienced past discrimination.

If confirmed by the Senate, Kavanaugh is seen as likely to tilt the nation’s highest judicial body even further to the right. That prospect worries Democrats and heartens Republicans on volatile issues including abortion, gun rights, gay rights, the death penalty, religious liberty and business regulation.

As on Wednesday, Kavanaugh faced questions on presidential power, some reflecting on his time working for Bush. In one exchange with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, Kavanaugh stressed the importance of lawyers pushing back against a president.

“Lawyers need to have backbone even in pressured moments to say ‘no.’ One of the most important responsibilities of an executive branch lawyer in the passions of the moment when the pressure’s on, when the president wants to do something, perhaps is to go into the Oval Office and say, ‘No, you shouldn’t do this,'” said Kavanaugh, who a day earlier also told the committee that “no one is above the law.”

‘A SHAM’

The hearing opened with Democrats complaining that the documents had not already been made public by the committee’s Republican leaders. They were released minutes later.

Booker called the process used by the committee to decide which documents to make public “a bit of sham,” a characterization rejected by the panel’s chairman, Chuck Grassley.

Republican Senator John Cornyn took issue with Booker’s comments.

“No senator deserves to sit on this committee or serve in the Senate, in my view, if they decide to be a law unto themselves and willingly flout the rules of the Senate and the determination of confidentiality and classification. That is irresponsible and conduct unbecoming a senator,” he said.

“Running for president is no excuse for violating the rules of the Senate or of the confidentiality of the documents that we are privy to,” Cornyn added.

Two of the Democratic senators who have been most forceful in the Kavanaugh hearing, Booker and Kamala Harris, are considered potential 2020 presidential candidates.

After more questions from senators on Thursday, the hearing is set to wrap up on Friday with testimony from outside witnesses. Republicans hope Kavanaugh will be confirmed by the Senate before the next Supreme Court term starts on Oct. 1.

Senate Democrats have vowed a tough fight to block Kavanaugh. But Trump’s fellow Republicans maintain a narrow Senate majority and there are no signs of defections in their ranks, indicating Kavanaugh likely will be confirmed.

Trump picked Kavanaugh, 53, to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement in June. Kavanaugh has served as a judge for 12 years after being appointed by Bush.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)