A Loss of Civility

A Loss of Civility


No matter how you feel about the outcome of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation, no one should be happy about how badly the process was scarred by politics. In the end, the debate and invective of recent weeks doesn’t help Kavanaugh, Congress or the Supreme Court.

Even before the highly charged day when Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg termed the confirmation process a “highly partisan show.”

Recalling how she was confirmed on a vote of 96-3 and how Antonin Scalia won unanimous Senate approval, she compared those tallies with the way things are now, adding: “The Republicans move in lockstep, and so do the Democrats. I wish I could wave a magic wand and have it go back to the way it was.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in her speech on why she was voting in favor of Kavanaugh, echoed Ginsburg’s comment, criticizing a “process that has become so dysfunctional, it looks more like a caricature of a gutter-level political campaign than a solemn occasion.”

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The problem, she said, is that what should be a dispassionate analysis “is not merely a case of differing groups having different opinions. It is a case of people bearing extreme ill will toward those who disagree with them. In our intense focus on our differences, we have forgotten the common values that bind us together as Americans.” 

The latest political infighting at the court may be traced back to the 2000 ruling that put George W. Bush in the White House. The political animosity intensified through the Obama years, culminating in 2016, when the Senate refused to even schedule hearings on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the high court.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set the ugly tone, recalling that “one of my proudest moments was when I told Obama, ‘You will not fill this Supreme Court vacancy.’ ”

 The process over Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s first nominee, was pretty tame, and he won confirmation relatively easily. But that was one conservative filling the seat of another. When Kavanaugh was named to the seat being vacated by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the balance of the court was likely to change dramatically.

The first round of hearings produced little in the way of fireworks. Then came the Ford letter, the delay in its becoming public, finger-pointing over how it was leaked, and the dramatic day of she said/he said before a rapt,  nationwide audience.

The low point of the day may have been Kavanaugh’s overheated rhetoric claiming that opposition to his appointment was “a calculated and orchestrated political hit fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.” 

Then Trump stooped even lower, mocking Ford’s story of sexual assault.

The sad part of the political fray was that on both sides, there was not even a pretense of civility. Saturday’s close vote that put Kavanaugh on the court will only intensify the political rift, and the results of next month’s midterm elections are likely to do the same.

But the most harmful effects are likely to come years down the line, when in the minds of the public, 5-4 court rulings will carry a sense of illegitimacy, something equivalent to an asterisk or a scarlet letter.

The presidency and Congress already rank shamefully low in the public’s esteem. It would be too bad if the Supreme Court ends up joining them.