This is Kavanaugh’s new life in the place he grew up and lived for five decades, the enclave of power and privilege where his parents confidently predicted that their only child would someday be named to the most prestigious court in the land.
During the sensational confirmation hearings last year, where Christine Blasey Ford alleged that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her, he furiously denied the charges and declared that his name had been “totally and permanently destroyed.” In fact, in the year since he was sworn in, the newly minted justice has resumed the broad outlines of his former life.
Kavanaugh has been embraced by the other justices and bolstered by friends and former colleagues who say he’s been smeared with decades-old, unproven allegations. On the rare occasions he has ventured out socially, it has been with welcoming audiences who insist on comity regardless of ideological or political differences.
But he is also persona non grata in parts of the nation’s capital, where the veneer of politesse was stripped away by the nature of Ford’s allegations, Kavanaugh’s treatment of female senators during the hearings and the belief that civility — one of the cardinal virtues of Establishment Washington — should not be co-opted to excuse intolerable behavior. There are women who refuse to be in the same room as Kavanaugh, much less at the same dinner table.
Ford’s world has changed more dramatically: She relocated four times out of fear for her family’s safety and continued to receive death threats. She has not returned to teaching, according to “She Said” by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and is still wary of appearing anywhere in public — much less enjoying a nice dinner out.
The discreet discomfort around Kavanaugh is distinct from the treatment of most other justices, who are honored guests regardless of politics. Last week, Sonia Sotomayor threw out the first pitch at a Nationals game. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a movie star, thanks to two glowing films, and received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience at Saturday’s National Symphony Orchestra concert. Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr. are VIP guests at Washington’s most prestigious galas. Kavanaugh, on the other hand, is a walking controversy.
And the headlines keep coming, nearly all damaging. Senate Democrats have asked the FBI to reopen the Kavanaugh investigation. In the book “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” two New York Times reporters dig further into his alleged inappropriate behavior when he was at Yale. Democratic presidential hopefuls have called for his impeachment — a legal improbability but a potent talking point.
Through it all, President Trump keeps tweeting: “The one who is actually being assaulted is Justice Kavanaugh – Assaulted by lies and Fake News!”
Decades from now, legal scholars will evaluate Kavanaugh’s career based on his opinions and dissents. But his reputation is being forged now, with every tweet and impassioned defense or indictment, as a main character in #MeToo.
“A justice’s place in history is often shaped by a combination of biography and actual judicial legacy,” said historian Jon Meacham. “And because so few justices loom large in the popular memory, biography is especially important. So Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O’Connor endure as ‘firsts,’ and Clarence Thomas and Kavanaugh will likely always be associated with the dramas of their confirmations.”
There are some justices who do not care what Washington insiders — or anyone else, for that matter — think about them. Kavanaugh, a favorite son groomed for greatness and unaccustomed to indignity, cares.
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Kavanaugh declined to be interviewed for this article, as did many friends and colleagues close to him. They have drawn a velvet curtain around his life, creating safe spaces where he is protected, respected and free to drink a beer without anyone making a federal case out if it.
Some, however, agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity about Kavanaugh and elements of his private life that they’ve witnessed. For the most part, he limits himself to a self-contained world where people are not confrontational or disrespectful, much in the same way that Trump sticks to his rallies, his golf clubs and the Trump International Hotel.
That bubble begins, of course, at the Supreme Court. The justices have always put a premium on respect and a close working relationship, regardless of the confirmation battles before they arrived or their legal opinions afterward.
“The nine of us are now a family, and we’re a family with each of us our own burdens and our own obligations to others, but this is our work family, and it’s just as important as our personal family,” Sotomayor told CNN in November. Elena Kagan threw a dinner for Kavanaugh at her home, and Ginsburg praised him as “very decent, very smart” and applauded his decision to hire four female law clerks this year — the first justice to ever select an all-female team. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who has reportedly taken Kavanaugh under his wing, was spotted with him on July 4 at the private Chevy Chase Club, where they are both members.
Like any rookie justice, Kavanaugh has been careful to conform to the norms of the institution: Because he was out of the country when former justice John Paul Stevens died this summer, Kavanaugh sent his wife, Ashley, to represent him at the memorial ceremony — despite the fact that Stevens, after watching the confirmation hearings, said Kavanaugh lacked the temperament to serve on the Supreme Court.
A small number of visitors have come through Kavanaugh’s chambers: friends, students and legal groups. In February, he hosted a thank-you lunch in the court building for 35 women who defended him during the confirmation fight. On a more personal note, he welcomed players and their parents from the basketball teams he coaches at Blessed Sacrament School, and then they played a game on the court’s court on the fifth floor.
Coaching, as he emotionally told the Senate last year, is a very big deal to him. “I love coaching more than anything I have ever done in my whole life,” Kavanaugh said. “I may never be able to coach again.”
His fears were unfounded: Kavanaugh served as head coach for his younger daughter’s fifth- and sixth-grade team and as assistant coach for his older daughter’s seventh- and eighth-grade squad, both for the entire season. His newfound fame had refs lining up for selfies while vowing not to give his teams preferential treatment.
Kavanaugh, according to someone who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has been moved by the empathetic reception he has received from supporters. Friends have broken into tears. “I’ve been praying for you” is a frequent refrain.
The 54-year-old was warmly greeted by fellow alumni at Georgetown Prep’s Stag Night last October and at the homecoming game the following day, where he posed for pictures (but asked people to put down their beers, according to news reports). He received a standing ovation at the conservative Federalist Society’s annual dinner in November, although he did not address the crowd as is customary for a newly appointed justice blessed by the group. (He is scheduled to speak there this year. Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society and a leading champion for Kavanaugh’s confirmation, declined to comment for this article.) Kavanaugh was an honored guest at the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick dinner in March and was introduced as “the most famous middle-school basketball coach in America” by billionaire David Rubenstein at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., in May.
His only public remarks came in May at a conference in Milwaukee for the judges of the 7th Circuit. With his mentor, retired justice Anthony M. Kennedy, at his side, Kavanaugh said that he believed judges must always be above politics and that he tried to stand in the other person’s shoes when considering a case. “It’s important for judges not [to] be in a bubble,” he told the audience, according to CNN.
Kavanaugh, who loves to cite part of Matthew 25 — where Jesus said, “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat” — as a guiding principle, continues to worship at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, where he serves as a lector. The congregation was privately torn by the allegations against him, but none of his fellow worshipers have confronted the justice in a public manner, according to one congregant. He has also been spotted having dinner with his wife occasionally at the Chevy Chase Club, where politics and titles “are left at the door,” a member said.
Kavanaugh has continued his volunteer work with Catholic Charities; he shows up at its downtown headquarters every few weeks, primarily serving meals to the homeless. Last month, he spent two hours preparing dinner plates but remained in a courtyard, out of sight.
When Kavanaugh does go out in public, he usually wears a baseball cap, which allows him to move around unrecognized by most people. The relative anonymity has enabled him to attend a few Nationals games and the Women’s NCAA Final Four in Tampa, and vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Del., where the family rents a house every August.
Not a life destroyed, by any objective standard. But not the deference, let alone the acclaim, enjoyed by most of the justices in the nation’s capital.
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In their new book, “Justice on Trial,” conservative authors Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino write that Kavanaugh’s wife hoped that her husband, shortlisted as a likely Supreme Court pick under a Republican president, wouldn’t get the nod. Kavanaugh was nominated by President George W. Bush for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2003 but was not confirmed until 2006 because Democrats questioned his work for independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton and on Bush’s legal team during the 2000 Florida ballot recount.
“Perhaps because the earlier confirmation battle had been so brutal,” they write, “Ashley prayed that God would deliver them from another.” Kavanaugh’s advocates expected a political battle but not the explosive allegations from Ford that divided the nation.
This spring, Ford’s attorney said her client’s testimony exposed Kavanaugh’s character to the world: “He will always have an asterisk next to his name,” Debra Katz said in April at the University of Baltimore. During the same speech, she accused the Republican senators who voted for Kavanaugh of misogyny.
For most Americans, their first and only impression of Kavanaugh comes from his confirmation hearings. In popular culture, he has become a punchline: Matt Damon’s unforgettable impression on “Saturday Night Live.” Julia Louis-Dreyfus took jabs at him when she accepted the Mark Twain Prize at the Kennedy Center. He was the subject of a reality TV debate on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” But perhaps nothing captured the divisiveness better than Time’s annual “100 Most Influential People” list in April. Kavanaugh was described by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “one of the most qualified Supreme Court nominees in modern history.” Ford was lauded by Sen. Kamala D. Harris as a woman who “risked everything to send a warning in a moment of grave consequence.”
None of this is surprising to Ryan Lovelace, a legal business reporter for the National Law Journal and the author of “Search and Destroy: Inside the Campaign Against Brett Kavanaugh.”
“There’s been an increasingly vitriolic political climate around the Supreme Court for some time,” he said. The political left is finally organizing and campaigning around the courts in the same way the right has done, successfully, for years, he added.
The question now: How will this ultimate Washington insider — Republican loyalist, Bush White House staffer, appellate judge — respond to the ongoing questions about his character and behavior? Will he, like Justice Clarence Thomas, retreat into the arms of conservative ideology and supporters? Or will Kavanaugh try, as he’s done all his life, to emulate his mentor, Justice Kennedy?
“Justice Thomas was embittered by his bruising confirmation battle and in some ways radicalized in terms of his jurisprudence,” said legal scholar David Lat, founder of the Above the Law blog. “I think Justice Kavanaugh is a contrast. He seems very much like the judge we knew on the D.C. Circuit. He is carrying himself as if nothing from the confirmation battle happened. . . . He’s hoping to put this all behind him.”
That’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Last fall, hundreds of alumni at Harvard Law wrote an open letter urging the dean to drop Kavanaugh, who taught there for 10 years. “We believe that Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment as an HLS lecturer sends a message to law students, and in particular female students, that powerful men are above the law, and that obstructive, inappropriate behavior will be rewarded,” they said. Harvard quickly announced that Kavanaugh’s schedule would not allow him to continue teaching at the school.
Then George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School offered him a three-year contract to teach an off-campus course in England during the court’s summer break. GMU law students did not object, but undergraduates demanded that the university’s president, Ángel Cabrera, fire Kavanaugh. He refused, writing that a justice’s contribution was “uniquely valuable” for law students and that the “decision, controversial as it may be, in no way affects the university’s ongoing efforts to eradicate sexual violence from our campuses.” Kavanaugh taught the three-week course without incident and took his family to see “Hamilton” in London.
Perhaps Kavanaugh will come to decide he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. “At the end of the day,” Lat said, “he’s still a Supreme Court justice.”