By MARK SHERMAN and LISA MASCARO
WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh repeatedly stressed the importance of judicial independence as he faced questioning at his confirmation hearing Wednesday from senators, including Democrats who fear he would be President Donald Trump’s man on the high court.
Pressed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, on whether he would be independent from the president who nominated him, Kavanaugh responded, “No one is above the law.”
The second day of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings began much as the first with protesters often interrupting proceedings. But senators then plunged into their initial opportunity to publicly question him in what was expected to be a marathon day of examination.
The hearing has strong political overtones ahead of the November election, but Democrats lack the votes to block Kavanaugh’s confirmation. They fear Kavanaugh will push the court to the right on abortion, guns and other issues, and that he will side with Trump in cases stemming from Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Addressing some of those concerns, Kavanaugh said that “the first thing that makes a good judge is independence, not being swayed by political or public pressure,” He cited historic court cases including Brown v. Board of Education that desegregated schools and U.S. v. Nixon that compelled the president to turn over the Watergate tapes — a ruling that Kavanaugh had previously questioned.
“That takes some backbone,” he said of the justices who decided those cases.
Asked about court precedents, the importance of previously settled cases including the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that ensures access to abortion, Kavanaugh said, “Respect for precedent is important. … Precedent is rooted right in the Constitution itself.”
Trump nominated Kavanaugh, 53, to fill the seat of retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. The change could make the court more conservative on a range of issues.
Republicans hope to confirm Kavanaugh in time for the first day of the new Supreme Court term, Oct. 1.
Much like the first day of protests and arrests, which punctuated the senators’ partisan quarreling over the nomination, the second day saw more than a dozen protesters hauled out of the hearing room shouting objections to Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Democrats, including several senators poised for 2020 presidential bids, had tried to block the formal proceedings Tuesday in a dispute over Kavanaugh records withheld by the White House. Republicans in turn accused the Democrats of turning the hearing into a circus.
Trump jumped into the fray Tuesday, saying on Twitter that Democrats were “looking to inflict pain and embarrassment” on Kavanaugh.
The president’s comment followed the statements of Democratic senators who warned that Trump was, in the words of Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, “selecting a justice on the Supreme Court who potentially will cast a decisive vote in his own case.”
The most likely outcome of this week’s hearings is a vote along party lines to send Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate.
Majority Republicans can confirm Kavanaugh without any Democratic votes, though they’ll have little margin for error.
“There are battles worth fighting, regardless of the outcome,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said Tuesday in an unsparing opening statement that criticized Kavanaugh’s judicial opinions and the Senate process that Democrats said had deprived them of access to records of important chunks of Kavanaugh’s time as an aide to President George W. Bush.
Democrats raised objections from the moment Iowa Sen. Grassley gaveled the committee to order Tuesday. One by one, Democrats, including Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, all potential presidential contenders, demanded that Republicans delay the hearing. They railed against the unusual vetting process by Republicans that failed to include documents from three years Kavanaugh worked in the Bush administration, and 100,000 more pages withheld by the Trump White House. Some 42,000 pages were released to senators only, not the public, on the evening before the hearing.
As protesters repeatedly interrupted the session, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who is fighting for his own re-election in Texas, apologized to Kavanaugh for the spectacle he said had less to do about the judge’s legal record than Trump in the White House.
“It is about politics,” said Cruz. “It is about Democratic senators re-litigating the 2016 election.”
Republicans will hold a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate once Jon Kyl, the former Arizona senator, is sworn in to fill the seat held by the late Sen. John McCain.
Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are the only two Republicans even remotely open to voting against Kavanaugh, though neither has said she would do so. Abortion rights supporters are trying to appeal to those senators, who both favor abortion access.
Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko and Ken Thomas contributed.