A gleeful President Trump appeared at the ceremonial swearing-in for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh on Monday at the White House, where the president offered a broad apology for the judge’s “suffering” throughout his confirmation process, then said directly to Kavanaugh: “I must state that you, sir, under historic scrutiny, were proven innocent.”
Though it is true that American jurisprudence requires that, as Trump said, the criminally accused be “presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty,” Kavanaugh was not a criminal defendant. A confirmation hearing is a congressional proceeding, not an adjudication of guilt. It is not a trial, and there are no fact finders.
Moreover, despite Trump’s words to the contrary, “proven innocent” is neither a legitimate legal standard nor a goal of the American legal system.
“We don’t judge innocence in courtrooms in the United States,” Duke University School of Law professor Donald Beskind told The Washington Post. The notion of finding someone “not guilty” is wholly separate from finding someone innocent.
“What we decide is whether the state — which has the burden of proving guilt beyond any reasonable doubt, the highest standard in our legal system — has met that burden of proof,” Beskind said.
When a jury finds an individual “not guilty,” it is saying that doubt remains, not that the individual is innocent.
It’s common for jurors to believe that a defendant committed the crime charged, yet still vote “not guilty” because they aren’t certain it’s been proven to the satisfaction of the legal system, according to Youngjae Lee, criminal law professor at Fordham University School of Law.
A 12-person jury could unanimously agree that there is a 75 percent possibility that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged — and that jury could still decide unanimously to acquit because the panelists think prosecutors have not proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, Lee said.
“That is what the proof beyond a reasonable doubt demands,” Lee told The Post. “So it’s simply false to say that an acquittal is the same as proof of innocence in the criminal context.”
Fifty senators voted to confirm Kavanaugh on Saturday. Forty-eight voted not to.
Lee explained that there were many possibilities to explain what the confirmation vote indicated about Kavanaugh’s innocence. It’s possible, for instance, that 98 senators unanimously believed he committed sexual assault, as alleged, but 50 still thought that he should be confirmed. Or, 98 senators could have unanimously believed he did not do it, and 48 of them still voted against confirmation, Lee said.
Additionally, Lee said, “there are many possibilities in between.” Either way, he added, for Trump to declare that Kavanaugh was proven innocent is a “wild overstatement to say the least, and very likely an inaccurate read of what happened.”
Kavanaugh has now taken a seat on the Supreme Court, and that is a historical fact. It exists apart from the question of guilt or innocence, which has little to do with the week-long investigation and Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that occurred in recent weeks.