The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh opened Tuesday with an immediate interjection from Sen. Kamala Harris.
“Mr Chairman, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman,” said the California Democrat to Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at the beginning of the hearing. “I'd like to be recognized for a question before we proceed. Mr. Chairman. I'd like to be recognized to ask a question before we proceed. The committee received just last night – less than 15 hours ago – 42,000 pages of documents that we have not had an opportunity to review or read or analyze ...”
“You are out of order, I'll proceed ...” Grassley said.
“We cannot possibly move forward, Mr. Chairman, with this hearing,” Harris said. “We have not been given the opportunity to have a meaningful hearing on this nominee.”
“I will proceed,” Grassley said, before attempting to move on with the hearing.
But for the next hour and a half, Democrats attempted to postpone the hearing as protesters repeatedly shouted at speakers.
Protesters expressed concern that Kavanaugh would overturn Roe vs. Wade and the abortion rights that Supreme Court decision enshrines. Democrats, meanwhile, voiced worry that they could not evaluate Kavanaugh without the hundreds of thousands of documents produced by Kavanaugh while he was a White House staff attorney for President George W. Bush and during his work work with Special Prosecutor Ken Starr during the investigation into President Bill Clinton.
Democrats – including Harris and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein – asked Grassley to reconsider moving forward with the hearing until the documents they seek are sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee for review.
"What we're looking at is – is he within the mainstream of American legal opinion and will he do the right thing by the Constitution?” Feinstein asked. “We are also experiencing the vetting process that has cast aside tradition in favor of speed."
“My staff has set up workstations and has been available 24/7,” said Sen. Grassley. “Can I ask my colleagues on the other side of the aisle how long you are going to go on with this?”
"These are very unique circumstances,” Feinstein said. “Not only is the country deeply divided politically. We also find ourselves with a president who faces his own serious problems. Over a dozen cabinet members and senior aides to President Trump have resigned, been fired or failed their confirmations under clouds of corruption, scandal and suspicion. The president's personal lawyer, campaign manager, deputy campaign manager and several campaign advisors have been entangled by indictments, guilty pleas and criminal convictions. So it's this backdrop that this nominee comes into."
Trump has been plagued by legal trouble since he took office, and more than a dozen of his staff and confidants have been indicted or pleaded guilty as part of an investigation into the campaign’s alleged ties to the Russian government.
“This is a hearing about who will sit on the highest court of our land,” Sen. Harris said. “So I object, and I ask that we renew and revisit to suspend ... or postpone this hearing.”
As Democrats pushed for a postponement of the hearing, Republicans expressed frustration with the debate.
“This is the first hearing according to mob rule,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “It’s hard to take seriously that they can’t do their job when they already made up their minds before the hearing. There’s nothing fair about that.”
Republican also alleged that Democrats had staged their attempt to delay the hearing, with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, citing an NBC news tweet during the hearing that reported the outcry came at the direction of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.
Yet, a staff member in Feinstein’s office told KQED the frustration that led to an hour and 15 minutes of “pandemonium,” as The New York Times described it.
“This is largely free-flowing now so we’ll just have to watch and see how it goes,” said Feinstein aide Ashely Schapitl. “So rare to have unscripted moments in the Senate.”
The discord that marked the start of this hearing is unprecedented, according to three law professors responding independently to KQED.
UC Hastings law professor Rory Little, who clerked for three Supreme Court justices, said he had never seen anything like the beginning of this hearing.
Bradley Joondeph of Santa Clara University said the closest parallel to the discord Tuesday morning was probably the nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1991. His hearing was marked by allegations from Anita Hill, one of his former subordinates in two federal agencies, that Thomas had subjected her to sexual harassment.
Carl Tobias, the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond, Virginia, agreed with Democrats that Kavanaugh's nomination is being hurried.
“There has never been such a rush to confirm a nominee and so few documents made available so slowly,” Tobias said in an email.
This post was updated with corrected information about UC Hastings law professor Rory Little.