Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh received an extended standing ovation from members of the conservative Federalist Society on Thursday night as he delivered his first high-profile speech since his tumultuous confirmation hearing a year ago.
Kavanaugh thanked many in the audience who had stood by him and supported him during the confirmation process. He said his theme for the evening was “gratitude.”
As he spoke, some protesters sitting at tables in the room blew high-pitched whistles — and were escorted out. After they left the room, it again erupted into applause.
Kavanaugh said he was “humbled” to be there and he singled out former White House counsel Don McGahn along with fellow Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, all of whom were in attendance.
The keynote speech at the black-tie gala, a little more than a year after allegations of sexual misconduct nearly derailed Kavanaugh’s confirmation, was in marked contrast to the very low public profile he’s kept since joining the Supreme Court. His time on the bench started with a private swearing-in, held away from protesters who swarmed the steps of the Supreme Court and banged on the monumental bronze doors as he took his oath inside. Kavanaugh has adamantly denied the allegations.
Attendees Thursday night, however, had to pass by a large electronic billboard replaying the congressional testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, who publicly accused Kavanaugh of assaulting her at a high school party decades ago. The demonstration was the work of Demand Justice, a liberal group opposed to President Donald Trump’s nominees.
For the crowd of conservatives, Kavanaugh — along with fellow Trump appointee Gorsuch — represents a resounding success after judicial conservatives have spent years in the trenches working to bring attention to the courts, vetting potential nominees in an effort to change the face of the judiciary. Republicans have pushed through more than 150 judges since Trump took office.
Kavanaugh was introduced Thursday by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has made the judiciary a top priority.
“Our progress is literally historic,” the Kentucky Republican said. “My motto for the rest of this year and next year is ‘Leave no vacancy behind.’ ”
Kavanaugh is coming off an extraordinary first term for a junior justice. He was assigned two relatively meaty majority opinions, something most junior justices don’t see until they have spent more time on the bench. Opinion assignments are made by the chief justice or the most senior justice in the majority.
Chief Justice John Roberts assigned him an opinion concerning race in jury selection. Kavanaugh, writing for a 7-2 court, held that a death row inmate’s rights had been violated when a prosecutor tried him six times for murder, which the court found to be unconstitutional racial discrimination. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the leading liberal on the court — gave him one opinion where he voted with his liberal colleagues to allow an antitrust class action lawsuit against Apple go forward.
Of all the justices, Kavanaugh and Roberts shared the highest agreement level of any pairing this term, according to statistics compiled by Adam Feldman for SCOTUSblog, a site focused on covering the Supreme Court.
Kavanaugh proceeded carefully at times in his first few months — including voting with Roberts, for instance, to decline a case concerning Planned Parenthood, over the objections of the more conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.
But at the end of the term, Kavanaugh’s conservative colors were on display. He voted with the majority when the court said it would not review cases concerning claims of partisan gerrymandering. He also voted to allow the administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census — a move that was blocked when Roberts joined with the liberals ruling against the President.
But in many ways, the last term was one of transition. This term, the justices are facing a docket of contentious issues concerning abortion, LGBT rights, immigration and the Second Amendment. During oral arguments earlier this week on a challenge to the Trump administration’s move to terminate the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields some undocumented immigrants from deportation, Kavanaugh suggested at one point that he might vote in favor of Trump — a move that would leave some 700,000 undocumented immigrants in legal limbo.
It is unclear if he will vote to allow the Trump administration to phase out the program.
The court is also poised to render judgment on cases directly involving Trump over the coming year. Hours before the speech, private lawyers for Trump asked the justices to block a subpoena for his tax records. Other cases related to Trump’s claims of immunity are likely to reach the justices in the coming weeks.
By all accounts, he was warmly received on the court. Last summer, Ginsburg told an audience at Duke that Gorsuch and Kavanaugh — her “two newest colleagues” — are “very decent, very smart individuals.” She also praised Kavanaugh last term for hiring an all-female slate of clerks.
But although as a lower court judge he often appeared on the speech circuit and as a guest lecturer, the Federalist Society event marked his first big outing. He had committed to giving the speech before the Federalist Society a year ago and has no other similar events on his calendar.