WASHINGTON - Controversial 53-year-old Judge Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court on Saturday (Oct 6) in a 50-48 vote in the Senate.
His elevation to the nine-member Supreme Court bench is, as of now, United States President Donald Trump’s most lasting legacy. Supreme Court justices sit for life, unless they resign, retire, are impeached, or die.
The Supreme Court is set to be conservative for decades.
“The White House applauds the Senate for confirming President Trump’s nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court," said White House spokesman Raj Shah. "Later today, the President will sign his commission of appointment and he will be officially sworn in.”
Mr Trump congratulated the Senate on its decision in a tweet.
It is a triumph for conservative groups, some of which spent millions to support Judge Kavanaugh and this past week defend him against accusations of sexual assault in his high school days.
Tilting the balance of the Supreme Court bench to the conservative was at the core of the Republican Party’s agenda and, in his own words, part of the reason that President Trump was elected in 2016.
To be sure – underlining the divisiveness of the fight over Judge Kavanaugh - millions were spent in support of him as well, by progressive groups.
The judge’s confirmation is a reckoning as well for the #MeToo movement, and potentially for women’s rights.
The confirmation has left a bitter taste. “This is now just the culminating step in making the courts 'just another institution' in tribal politics,” Dr TJ Pempel, political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley told The Straits Times.
All eyes are now on the effect on the Nov 6 midterm elections.
Educated suburban women are expected to turn out in greater numbers for the Democratic Party, or turn against President Trump, whose name is not on any of the ballots but whose abrasive personality looms large.
“This is really the last gasp of white supremacy,” Ms Winnie Wong, a senior adviser for the Women’s March told The Straits Times.
Yet with the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh, Republicans will be enthused to turn out in greater numbers as well, pundits say – in elation at the confirmation, and also partly in a backlash to the #MeToo movement.
The Democrats, however, are still tipped to win back a majority in the House.
“This could be beneficial for the Democrats, it… can be used to say the Republican Party has a war on women,” Republican strategist and commentator Evan Siegfried told The Straits Times.
Last year, Mr Trump succeeded in getting conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch onto the Supreme Court, fulfilling a campaign pledge – after the Republican Party had successfully stalled a bid by his predecessor, president Barack Obama, to appoint a liberal judge to the bench.
The Gorsuch appointment turned the bench back to leaning conservative. Then in June this year, Justice Anthony Kennedy, seen as a swing voter, abruptly retired, leaving another seat to be filled.
“Many people voted for Donald Trump setting aside reservations about his experience, his character, his fitness for office, because they believed that Supreme Court appointments were that important,” Dr Glenn Altschuler, professor of American studies at Cornell University, told The Straits Times.
“This… solidifies not only a conservative majority but a majority of hard right conservatives,” he said.
“There is now a likelihood that abortion rights may be revisited; there is an affirmative action case in higher education that is pending. These decisions are consequential. And of course, there could be cases involving presidential power.”
The process has also left America’s political polarisation even more acute.
“The Kavanaugh issue has almost acted as a centrifuge to separate red and blue elements of the electorate even more,” Mr David Wasserman, House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told the Washington Post.
By late on Friday night, as Senators dug in for a rare overnight session, it was increasingly clear that Judge Kavanaugh had the votes needed for the narrowest confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice since Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991.
Sealing the deal were yes votes from Republican Senators Susan Collins and Jeff Flake, and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.
Senator Manchin’s acquiescence is seen as a political calculation that could benefit him as the lone Democratic Senator in West Virginia, which Mr Trump won in 2016 with over 68 per cent of the vote. Senator Collins of Maine, after announcing her decision, faced an immediate backlash, with donations pouring in to a website to support a rival.
Judge Kavanaugh’s qualifications were not in doubt. But he was accused of a drunken sexual assault in their high school years by Dr Christine Blasey Ford, now a professor of psychology in Palo Alto, California.
Dr Ford impressed on Sept 27 with emotional yet measured testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Judge Kavanaugh by contrast delivered an emotional, angry testimony decrying political vendetta, attacking Democrats, and leaving many doubting – regardless of the accusations – if he had the temperament to be a Supreme Court Justice.
A hastily arranged, supplementary FBI investigation apparently failed to find evidence to corroborate Dr Ford’s recollection from 36 years ago, and left the issue of temperament unaddressed - paving the way for the final vote that saw Judge Kavanaugh through.
But the taint may cling to the Judge, and to the Court.
“The Supreme Court... was seen as above partisan politics and truly an institution that could be counted on to evaluate tough issues on the basis of the constitution and with a somewhat open mind,” said Dr Pempel.
“That is now absolutely gone.”