By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee, sought to stake out his independence on Wednesday as he faced his first questions during the second day of his contentious Senate confirmation hearing.
“I think the first quality of a good judge in our constitutional system is independence,” the conservative federal appeals court judge said in response to a question by the Judiciary Committee’s Republican chairman, Chuck Grassley.
“No one is above the law in our constitutional system,” Kavanaugh added.
As they did the day before, protesters repeatedly interrupted the session, opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination.
The confirmation hearing opened on Tuesday with a chaotic session in which Democrats complained that Republicans withheld documents concerning Kavanaugh’s work in former President George W. Bush’s White House more than a decade ago that they said they needed to review to properly vet the nominee. Capitol Police on Tuesday removed 61 protesters opposed to Kavanaugh from the room and charged them with disorderly conduct.
Trump has often criticized the federal judiciary. Kavanaugh underscored the importance of judicial independence, saying, “That takes some backbone. That takes some judicial fortitude.”
In citing examples of judicial independence, Kavanaugh mentioned a 1954 ruling ending racial segregation in public schools and a 1974 ruling ordering President Richard Nixon to hand over subpoenaed materials during the Watergate scandal.
He also said he would respect past Supreme Court rulings.
Democratic senators plan to press Kavanaugh on abortion, gun rights, among other issues.
Kavanaugh, who made an opening statement to the committee on Tuesday, entered the hearing room and took his seat alone at the witness table, pouring some bottled water into a glass moments before the hearing began.
Shortly after Grassley opened the session, protesters began interrupting the proceedings and were hauled out of the room by security personnel.
If confirmed, Kavanaugh is expected to move the court, which already had a conservative majority, further to the right. Senate Democrats have vowed a fierce fight. But with Trump’s fellow Republicans holding a slim majority in the Senate, and with no sign of any of them voting against the nomination, it remains likely Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the lifetime job on top U.S. judicial body.
Trump picked Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement on June 27. At age 53, Kavanaugh could serve on the court for decades.
Republicans said Democrats have more than enough documents to assess Kavanaugh’s record, including his 12 years of judicial opinions as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The hearing has given Democrats a platform to make their case against Kavanaugh ahead of November’s congressional elections in which they are seeking to regain control of Congress from the Republicans.
Liberals are concerned Kavanaugh could provide a decisive fifth vote on the nine-justice court to overturn or weaken the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
Kavanaugh also is likely to be questioned about his views on investigating sitting presidents and the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s 2016 campaign. Trump has denied any such collusion and has called Mueller’s investigation “witch hunt.”
In 2009, Kavanaugh wrote a law review article saying presidents should be free from the distractions of civil lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and investigations while in office.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Ginger Gibson and Amanda Becker; Editing by Will Dunham)