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Opinion Kavanaugh’s nomination now hangs by the thinnest of strings

As Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh faces a sexual misconduct allegation, columnist Ruth Marcus asks, who's responsible for the burden of proof? (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

It is difficult to comment on an unfolding news story, but this one demands it. It is hard to write about someone you know and like, especially concerning matters of character. But sometimes there is little choice.

In the case of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh v. Christine Blasey Ford, the moral issues are not fuzzy or unclear. It is seriously wrong even for a teenager in a drunken stupor to force himself on a woman — if it happened. It is seriously wrong for a Supreme Court nominee to lie about his past failures — if he did. It is seriously wrong to make false, inflammatory accusations — if she has.

The problem comes in interpreting the facts of the case and applying an unavoidably political criterion of worthiness. American politics is not conducted in a courtroom. The standard is not “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Yet there must be some standard, or else accusation would always mean conviction. Under this circumstance, fewer good men and women would take the risk of public service, knowing their credibility could be so easily destroyed.

The proper standard for public judgment is credibility. Were the charges of creepy and disturbing sexual behavior against Senate candidate Roy Moore credible? I think so, based on the testimony of multiple, credible victims who did not seem to have ulterior motives. The case against Moore was not certain, but I found his guilt likely.

Are the charges of sexual exploitation and assault true against both Bill Clinton and President Trump? In those cases, there is a pattern of credible accusations. With Trump, there is also an audio recording on which he brags of sexual assault, which speaks to his mental and moral attitude toward women.

The current state of the case against Kavanaugh does not yet match the credibility of these other accusations. So far, the charge against Kavanaugh is not corroborated by anyone else who was at the party in question. The later notes from Ford’s therapist are ambiguous and do not include Kavanaugh’s name. And there are no other accusations that might indicate a pattern of wrongdoing.

I would add — as a matter of disclosure — that I worked closely with Kavanaugh for years at the White House. I can’t be a completely unbiased judge. But a columnist can’t recuse himself from the largest issue of the day. For what it is worth, the charge of sexual assault is utterly inconsistent with everything I saw of Kavanaugh’s character and behavior toward women. He is distinguished by his unfailingly kind, considerate and respectful demeanor. To me, it is completely incredible to think of him as a sexual predator.

And yet, I know that friends and co-workers of Ford might claim the same about her character and veracity. If her charge is true, making it public — given the media’s saturation coverage and scrutiny — is a costly and admirable act. And all the testimonials for Kavanaugh in the world might not shed light on the way he might have acted as a drunken teenager.

This charge needs to be fully examined by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, no matter how much additional time that takes. They will be tasked with answering two questions: Is it credible that this assault happened? And is it part of a pattern of similar abuse?

Letters to the Editor

counterpointBrett Kavanaugh is not a hero

The theoretical issue — should a terrible act done by a 17-year-old disqualify his 53-year-old self from a sensitive government job? — is an interesting one. How about a 17-year-old who kills someone while driving drunk? Or a 17-year-old who deals drugs? In most cases, if we were talking about a single incident in someone’s youth, we might be lenient. But we properly place sexual assault in a special category of cruelty because of the type of lasting damage it inflicts. And we properly expect higher standards of probity from a judge than from other officials.

But these are not likely to be the decisive issues. If Ford’s claim against Kavanaugh is true, it means he boldly lied by categorically denying it. And those he lied to — his Senate jury — would properly find this disqualifying.

The Kavanaugh nomination now hangs by the thinnest of strings. If the accusation is supported by other credible witnesses who were at the party, or if additional, credible accusations emerge from later in Kavanaugh’s life, he should withdraw. If there is only a single, unsupported accusation, the Senate would be setting an unsustainable precedent by letting this determine the membership of the Supreme Court.

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Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Muscling through Kavanaugh’s confirmation isn’t an option

Ruth Marcus: We need the fullest possible airing of the accusation against Brett Kavanaugh

The Post’s View: The Senate should delay voting on Brett Kavanaugh

Kathleen Parker: An 11th-hour attempt to slander Brett Kavanaugh