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Opinion Republicans, don’t sidestep the National Archives on Kavanaugh’s papers

It’s moderate Democrats, not moderate Republicans, who will be feeling the heat to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, says columnist Dana Milbank. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

WHEN PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court eight months before the 2016 election, Republicans insisted that the Senate must wait until a new president was sworn in before lawmakers could reasonably consider a new pick for the high court. Now that a Republican sits in the White House, they have flipped 180 degrees, rushing to confirm Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh before Americans elect a new Senate in November.

That is the context in which to consider the seemingly dry procedural spat between Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Kavanaugh’s long record in public service, including his time in the George W. Bush White House and his more-than-a-decade-long stint on one of the country’s most powerful appeals courts, has produced a voluminous documentary record — millions of reviewable pages, depending on which files one considers germane. Democrats want as many documents as possible to prepare their cross-examination of Mr. Kavanaugh. Republicans do not want a painstaking document review to upset their confirmation schedule, with Judiciary Committee hearings scheduled to start in September and a confirmation vote in early October.

There is a continuing battle over whether Mr. Kavanaugh’s papers from his tenure as Mr. Bush’s staff secretary should be handed over, with Republicans arguing that the nominee mainly served as a traffic cop directing information within the White House, making documents from that period irrelevant. But both sides agree that senators should review the files from Mr. Kavanaugh’s service in the White House Counsel’s Office. Yet there are so many of those that the National Archives, the usual arbiter of which presidential records get turned over to the Senate and which remain sealed from the committee, has said it would take its staff until the end of October to process them. That would upset Republicans’ timeline to confirm Mr. Kavanaugh before Election Day.

So lawyers acting on Mr. Bush’s behalf have taken over the document review with an eye toward efficiency, determining quickly which records are presidential, and therefore due to the committee, and which are personal, and therefore not sent to lawmakers. This unprecedented sidestepping of the National Archives process by a team associated with Mr. Kavanaugh’s former boss and political patron has Democrats understandably upset.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) argues that the most important documents — Mr. Kavanaugh’s 300-plus decisions as an appeals court judge — are already public. He has also asked the National Archives to prioritize reviewing materials the Bush team has said should remain sealed, which would reduce the opportunity for the Bush team to keep embarrassing but relevant records secret. The Archives might be able to complete a more circumscribed review in September.

That helps, but it does not fully address the problem. Even when the committee gets the right records, some arrive at the committee for senators’ eyes only. That reduces their usefulness in questioning and in the public’s evaluation of Mr. Kavanaugh. The National Archives must be the arbiter not only of which documents are sent to the committee but also of the terms on which they are turned over. That might mean Republicans have to adjust their confirmation schedule. But there is no compelling public-interest argument to hold a vote by early October.

Read more:

Opinion: Think moderate Republicans will block Kavanaugh? Don’t hold your breath.

The Post’s View: Review Kavanaugh’s documents as needed. Then proceed.

Kenneth W. Starr: Brett Kavanaugh’s pro-democracy, let-the-people-govern-themselves vision

The Post’s View: Brett Kavanaugh could drastically shift the court to the right. The Senate should take care.

Jennifer Rubin: The Senate must prevent Kavanaugh’s nomination from corrupting the Supreme Court