John Dean, the former Nixon White House counsel who played a crucial role in the Watergate scandal, testified Friday that confirming Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh as a justice will lead to the “most presidential-powers friendly” Supreme Court in the modern age.
The sharp criticism was laid out in Dean’s remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the last day of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. More than two dozen witnesses testified in favor of and against President Trump’s Supreme Court pick.
Dean argued in his testimony that conservatives have “slowly done a 180-degree turn” on executive power and that a Supreme Court that is overly deferential to the president is “deeply troubling,” with Republicans controlling both the House and Senate.
“Under Judge Kavanaugh’s recommendation, if a president shot someone in cold blood on Fifth Avenue, that president could not be prosecuted while in office,” Dean told senators, a reference to Trump’s oft-repeated campaign line that he could act that way and not lose support.
Dean elaborated on his prepared testimony to the committee, in which he said: “There is much to fear from an unchecked president who is inclined to abuse his powers. That is a fact I can attest to from personal experience.”
Dean was a key witness during the congressional Watergate hearings in 1973, recounting how he told President Richard M. Nixon that there was a “cancer” growing on the presidency. Nixon resigned in 1974.
Dean was charged with obstruction of justice for his role in the Watergate coverup and spent four months in prison. Some Republican senators on the committee were highly critical of his role.
“I think you and your co-conspirators hurt my country,” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) told Dean. While Dean ultimately did the right thing, Kennedy added, “you only did it when you were cornered like a rat, and it’s hard for me to take your testimony seriously.”
Kavanaugh has held an expansive view of executive powers, and his opinions have been a major focal point for Democrats during his confirmation hearings to replace retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Under questioning, Kavanaugh declined to say whether a president is subject to a subpoena or whether he can pardon himself. The judge also declined to say whether he would recuse himself from cases involving special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, should they reach the Supreme Court.
Kavanaugh said it would be improper for him to opine during the hearings on matters that could come before the court.
Democrats assembled a slate of witnesses who argued about the impact that a Justice Kavanaugh would have on hot-button issues including voting rights, abortion access and gun control. Republicans have chosen to focus on Kavanaugh’s personal qualifications, calling on witnesses who testified to his legal acumen.
Kavanaugh is on track to win confirmation by month’s end with strong Republican support in the GOP-led Senate.
Friday’s hearing began with testimony from the American Bar Association, whose officials detailed how Kavanaugh achieved a unanimous “well qualified” rating from the lawyers group. Paul Moxley, the chairman of the group’s standing committee on the federal judiciary, said that the rating “reflects the consensus of his peers” and that the ABA conducted 120 personal interviews and contacted about 500 people to assess Kavanaugh.
When asked whether Kavanaugh was a mainstream jurist, John Tarpley, another ABA official, responded: “Absolutely. He’s at the top of the stream.”
Several witnesses called by Republicans detailed their personal relationships with Kavanaugh and said the judge has been a mentor and teacher, whether in court or in a classroom.
Luke McCloud, a former Kavanaugh law clerk, noted that 13 of Kavanaugh’s 48 clerks are racial minorities, a percentage he said was “nearly unheard of among his judicial peers.” Another witness — Colleen E. Roh Sinzdak — clerked for one of Kavanaugh’s colleagues, Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, whose 2016 nomination to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama was blocked by Senate Republicans.
Although she said the judiciary and the country “suffered greatly” because Garland had been blocked, Sinzdak stressed that that episode should not preclude the confirmation of Kavanaugh, whom she called a “brilliant, fair and kind jurist.”
“Throughout his legal career, I’ve heard nothing but the highest praise for Judge Kavanaugh as a human being, as a lawyer and as a judge,” said Theodore Olson, who served as U.S. solicitor general under President George W. Bush. “As far as I can tell, and as far as I have heard, he is uniformly respected by his peers on the D.C. Circuit.”
Those tales were a sharp contrast to the picture painted by opposing witnesses, who testified that Kavanaugh would be a critical swing vote against key rights. A handful were children, including Aalayah Eastmond, a 17-year-old student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who survived the shootings there on Feb. 14, and Hunter Lachance, a 15-year-old from Kennebunkport, Maine, who has asthma and raised concerns about Kavanaugh’s past environmental rulings.
Jackson Corbin, a 13-year-old from Hanover, Pa., with a rare genetic condition called Noonan syndrome, also pressed the Judiciary Committee to protect coverage for people with preexisting conditions — echoing warnings from Democratic senators that Kavanaugh, if confirmed, could strike down key provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
“I might be a kid, but I am still an American,” Jackson said. “We must have justices on the Supreme Court who will save the Affordable Care Act, safeguard preexisting conditions and protect our care.”