By Gabriella Borter
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (Reuters) – In a crowded lounge at Yale Law School, cheers erupted when the middle-aged woman on the TV screen told a Senate panel that she had no doubt that Brett Kavanaugh, the Yale graduate nominated to the Supreme Court, had sexually assaulted her when they were teens.
Like millions of Americans who tuned into the hearings, the young lawyers-in-training gathered on the New Haven campus hung on every word of the testimony, keenly aware of what the spectacle that was unfolding in Washington would mean for the political direction of the country for years to come.
With the multiple sexual misconduct allegations that have emerged against Kavanaugh this month, his nomination has become enmeshed in a national debate over sexual misconduct.
The conservative federal appeals court judge in his testimony on Thursday angrily and tearfully denied he had sexually assaulted his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
But Ford, a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, seemed very credible to many of the Yalies who watched the proceedings.
“Her clinical language – I think she uses the word hippocampus about six times, that actually made her more, not less credible to me,” said Jacob Bennett, a third-year law student, referring to Ford’s physiological descriptions of how the brain forms memories.
“Judge Kavanaugh I thought was frightening,” third-year law student Alyssa Peterson said after watching some of Kavanaugh‘s testimony. “I can’t imagine being Dr. Ford and seeing someone who sexually assaulted you screaming before the entire country.”
Students said a minority on the Yale campus supported Kavanaugh‘s nomination but were reluctant to be open about it. Laura Pietrantoni, a first-year law student who opposes Kavanaugh, said some of the judge’s supporters were “very scared to come forward and voice how they feel.”
As a Supreme Court nominee, Kavanaugh personifies the prestige of Yale, an institution in which many of the law students have invested their own career aspirations and identity. Kavanaugh earned both his undergraduate degree and law degree at Yale.
Yale’s public affairs office trumpeted Kavanaugh in a July press release, following his nomination to the U.S. top court, as a “terrific judge” who wrote “smart, thoughtful and clear” opinions.
In recent days, students have demonstrated on campus, papering walls with posters of support for Ford and holding a sit-in protest in the law school hallway over the nomination and the handling of Ford’s allegations.
In the law school lounge on Thursday, most of the students were rooting against Kavanaugh.
“I do not think that someone who has committed sexual assault should be on the Supreme Court of the United States,” said Veronica Guerrero, a second-year law student.
President Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh to fill the Supreme Court‘s pivotal ninth seat. Three other graduates of Yale’s law school already sit on the court: Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas.
Beyond the Yale campus, the hearing was a national obsession in many parts of the country.
On Wall Street, traders watched the hearing with one eye while they went about their business. People posted on social media images of airplane seatback video screens all tuned into the hearings. A woman was seen crying outside a Washington office building while she followed Ford’s testimony on her cellphone.
On C-Span, the sober public affairs network that covers the federal government, female viewers called in to share their own experiences of sexual abuse.
Since Ford’s name became public this month, at least two other women have come forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. One of those, Deborah Ramirez, said Kavanaugh exposed his penis to her during a drunken party at Yale’s Lawrence Hall dormitory when they were both undergraduates. Kavanaugh has denied the allegation.
In the Yale lounge, students laughed and clapped at Ford’s assured response when asked how she was sure that it was Kavanaugh who assaulted her: “The way that I’m sure I’m talking to you right now, it’s just basic memory functions,” Ford said.
The room erupted in applause when Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, made a reference to the nearly 50 Yale Law professors who have called for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into Ford’s allegation.
Sumer Ghazala, a first-year law student, said some students felt they had a special responsibility to speak out because of the school’s connection to Kavanaugh.
“It’s not about, ‘Oh, we’re very leftist,'” Ghazala said. “It definitely is about the fair process and taking sexual violence allegations as seriously as possible before someone is just confirmed into the Supreme Court.”
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New Haven, Conn.; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Ginger Gibson in Washington; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Frank McGurty, Alistair Bell and Leslie Adler)