Republican senators have selected Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to question Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh and the woman who has accused the Supreme Court nominee of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, a top senator announced Tuesday.
Mitchell is the chief of the special victims division of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which deals with sexual assault cases, among others. A registered Republican, Mitchell has worked for in the county attorney’s office for 26 years.
In enlisting Mitchell to join their staff, Republican senators are taking an unusual step. They are turning to her to ask what are expected to be personal and potentially painful questions about the woman’s youth on live television, sparing the all-male panel of 11 Republican senators on the committee some uncomfortable exchanges that could sway the public’s opinion about the session.
“The majority members have followed the bipartisan recommendation to hire as staff counsel for the committee an experienced career sex-crimes prosecutor to question the witnesses at Thursday’s hearing,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement. “The goal is to de-politicize the process and get to the truth, instead of grandstanding and giving senators an opportunity to launch their presidential campaigns.”
He added, “I’m very appreciative that Rachel Mitchell has stepped forward to serve in this important and serious role.”
Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both in high school, will testify under oath Thursday. Kavanaugh will testify separately the same day.
Mitchell did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Representatives for Kavanaugh and Ford did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The division Mitchell heads deals with family violence, physical and sexual abuse of children, and sex offenses, including sex assault cases. Mitchell oversees about 40 to 50 people in the division, said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.
Mitchell has a long history of investigating years-old sex crimes and allegations that are difficult to corroborate, including in her role re-examining hundreds of cases that were unresolved and inadequately investigated by the sheriff’s office, Montgomery said.
“Over the course of Rachel’s career, she has dealt with victims in this very circumstance of delayed disclosure and circumstances where allegations were difficult to corroborate,” Montgomery said. “She has had to make a decision as a prosecutor whether or not those cases can move forward.”
Senate Judiciary Committee staff contacted Montgomery over the weekend asking about her experience, and Montgomery encouraged the staff and Mitchell to communicate directly, he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier Tuesday that Republican lawmakers hired “a female assistant” to “ask these questions in a respectful and professional way. We want this hearing to be handled very professionally, not a political sideshow.”
In a 2011 interview, Mitchell said she was drawn to sex crimes work after she was paired with a senior lawyer prosecuting a youth choir director after joining the office as a law clerk awaiting the results of her bar exam. “It was different than anything that I would have ever imagined it being,” she said in an interview with FrontLine Magazine, which is affiliated with the conservative Christian group Foundations Baptist Fellowship International. “It struck me how innocent and vulnerable the victims of these cases really were.”
She is now a supervisor, where her duties include analyzing legislative changes and managing other attorneys. In an interview earlier this year on a local NPR radio station, Mitchell talked about the nuts and bolts of the office’s adoption of a new sex crimes protocol, the first in office history, intended to improve the investigation and prosecution of cases. She said the new manual would ensure prosecutors “have something to look at to say, okay, these are the best practices, so that we can do the best we can for victims.”
Tracey Westerhausen, a Phoenix defense attorney who has gone up against Mitchell in 30 cases over more than 20 years, said she has developed a close friendship with Mitchell over their time on opposite sides of the courtroom.
“Part of the reason we’re very good friends, she is a very nuanced and wise prosecutor,” she said. “She doesn’t pigeonhole defendants. In my experience, she is a very pointed questioner of adverse witnesses. But she is also very fair.”
Westerhausen, who called herself a lifelong Democrat, said she has never discussed politics with Mitchell but considers her a good choice for the high-stakes job. “As an American, it would make me more comfortable to see her selected. I really do think that she’s a very professional person who is out to make sure the right thing is done,” Westerhausen said.
Bruce Feder, a defense attorney in the county, said that as a manager, Mitchell spends less time now in the courtroom but has plenty of experience questioning both victims and people accused of wrongdoing.
He helped represent a priest who was prosecuted by Mitchell in 2004 for abusing a boy. Media reports indicated that the priest, the principal of a local school, was one of the first to be prosecuted for sex abuse in the county. The priest pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated assault with sexual motivation after the first day of his trial.
“She’s been either a trial lawyer or a supervisor for decades. I’m guessing she knows what she’s doing,” he said.
Mitchell was one of the prosecutors tasked with finding out why hundreds of sex crimes were unresolved or not adequately investigated by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, said Cindi Nannetti, former county prosecutor and Mitchell’s predecessor at the unit. The controversy had roiled the sheriff’s office for years and were unearthed after reports by victims and the media and an internal audit.
“She is one of the finest prosecutors in the country,” Nannetti wrote in a text message.
Jerry Sheridan, a former county chief deputy sheriff who oversaw the reexamination of unresolved cases, said the unit under Mitchell had a key role in establishing protocols and victims crisis centers across the Phoenix metro area in the wake of the controversy.
“The deputy county attorneys were assigned to the crisis centers to help all the law enforcement agencies in the East and West Valley,” Sheridan said. “They had a very active role.”
Congressional hearings are typically plum opportunities for lawmakers to grab the spotlight, draw attention to the issues they care about and, on occasion, create a moment that goes viral online.
But this time, Republicans on the committee prefer to keep a lower profile.
“I’m going to let the professional person do it,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said he expected the counsel would conduct all questioning of Ford, “although I’m very capable of doing it.”
Grassley said he appointed a woman from the outside to “de-politicize” the process and prevent a rerun of Anita Hill’s testimony at Justice Clarence Thomas’s 1991 confirmation hearing.
“The whole point is to create an environment where it’s what Dr. Ford has asked for, to be professional and to not be a circus,” said Grassley.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who is not on the Judiciary Committee, said, “Inadvertently somebody will do something that’s insensitive. I would not be wanting to ask questions about something like this.”
Before Mitchell’s name was revealed, Democrats criticized their Republican colleagues for leaving them in the dark and accused them of shirking their senatorial duties.
“Who is going to speak for all of the 11 Republican senators? We don’t have the name, do we?” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “Someone has been given a new job, a person we don’t know. At some point, that secrecy has to be unveiled. We should at least know who’s going to take the place of 11 duly sworn senators of the United States.”
Seung Min Kim, Alice Crites, Gabriel Pogrund and Emma Brown contributed to this report.