A Republican senator whose vote could ensure the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh offered an upbeat assessment of their meeting Tuesday, highlighting the judge’s statement that the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion is “settled law.”
Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a centrist who supports abortion rights, appeared to be leaning toward backing President Trump’s nominee after a one-on-one session that lasted more than two hours. Collins said she would announce her decision after confirmation hearings next month.
Collins said Kavanaugh told her that he agreed with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who said during his 2005 confirmation hearing that Roe was “settled as a precedent of the court.” The landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision established a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.
“He said that he agreed with what Justice Roberts said at his nomination hearing, in which he said it was settled law,” Collins told reporters. She praised her session with Kavanaugh as “excellent.”
With Republicans holding a slim 51-to-49 Senate majority, favorable votes from Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) would guarantee Kavanaugh’s confirmation and hand Trump his second Supreme Court justice.
Collins has said that she would oppose a nominee who “demonstrates hostility” to Roe v. Wade. She has also said that Kavanaugh’s position on abortion will not be the only factor in her decision.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) offered a wholly different assessment of his meeting with Kavanaugh on Tuesday afternoon, saying the judge failed to answer basic questions on executive power, health care and other issues while providing no reassurance that he would uphold Roe.
“I asked Judge Kavanaugh if he agreed that Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood were correctly decided. He would not say ‘yes.’ That should send shivers down the spine of any American who believes in reproductive freedom for women,” Schumer said at a news conference.
Casey v. Planned Parenthood was a 1992 ruling that upheld Roe, saying states could not enact laws that placed an “undue burden” on access to abortion.
Schumer said Kavanaugh also “would not say that the president should comply with a subpoena,” a matter that could come before the Supreme Court in relation to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the Trump campaign.
“Judge Kavanaugh seems to have just about the most expanded view of presidential power of any nominee that I have ever come across,” he said. “. . . Even in a criminal case against the president that would jeopardize national security, he wouldn’t say they should use the subpoena.”
There are several signs that Collins will vote to confirm Kavanaugh, a conservative stalwart with deep ties to the Republican establishment, to succeed retiring Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Despite pressure from both parties, the four-term senator has never opposed a Supreme Court nominee. She voted in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2006. And both Collins and Murkowski voted to confirm Neil M. Gorsuch, Trump’s previous Supreme Court nominee.
Murkowski will meet with Kavanaugh on Thursday, her spokeswoman confirmed. Republicans hope to confirm Kavanaugh before Oct. 1, when the court’s new term begins.
Schumer and Kavanaugh have tangled before on the issue of abortion, a topic likely to shape the discussion at the confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
When Schumer asked for his view on Roe during Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the D.C. Circuit in 2006, the would-be judge declined to give his opinion of the ruling but said he would follow Roe “faithfully and fully” if confirmed.
Kavanaugh does not have a large body of writing on abortion jurisprudence. In Garza v. Hargan last fall, he dissented from an opinion allowing an undocumented teenager to temporarily leave government custody to obtain an abortion, arguing to delay the procedure until she was released to a sponsor.
The dissent raised concerns among some abortion rights opponents who considered it too lenient.
The notion that Kavanaugh sees Roe as “settled” precedent, as Roberts said he did, may alarm rather than reassure abortion rights supporters: Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., another George W. Bush nominee, have been reliable votes for abortion restrictions in the most important cases to come before the court during their tenures.
Kavanaugh, 53, also met with Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), in addition to Collins and Schumer. The nominee declined to answer reporters’ questions as he walked between offices.
Absent from Collins’s account of their meeting was mention of a newly released memo from 1998 in which, as a lawyer in the office of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, Kavanaugh proposed asking President Bill Clinton sexually explicit questions about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.
The memo, first reported by The Washington Post, revealed Kavanaugh’s support at the time for an aggressive approach by the independent counsel. He said later that his views had shifted, arguing that presidents are too busy to be subject to investigations of that kind while in office.
Kavanaugh’s views on the matter are seen as crucial given that he might rule as a Supreme Court justice on the limits of Trump’s power and the investigation into Russian election interference led by Mueller.
Collins said she and Kavanaugh discussed his views on executive power, the Garza case and District of Columbia v. Heller, a landmark Supreme Court ruling on gun rights. She did not go into further detail on those topics.
Robert Barnes contributed to this report.