Senate committee delays vote on Supreme Court nominee amid sexual assault allegation

The Senate Judiciary Committee delayed a committee vote previously scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 20, on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as lawmakers grapple with how to handle sexual assault allegations that surfaced late last week.

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President Trump in July nominated Kavanaugh, who currently serves on the D.C. Circuit Court, to serve as the next associate justice on the Supreme Court following Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement. Thursday's vote was set to be the first in a series of votes on Kavanaugh's nomination that Republican lawmakers hoped to complete before the next Supreme Court session begins Oct. 1.

The allegations—and Kavanaugh's defense

According to Vox, "Kavanaugh's ascent to the high court seemed virtually assured early last week," but last week news of the alleged sexual assault broke after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, stated that she had referred a letter concerning Kavanaugh's nomination to the FBI.

In an interview with the Washington Post published Sunday, Sept. 16, Christine Blasey Ford, a Palo Alto University professor of clinical psychology, publicly accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her while the two were teenagers. Ford in the interview alleged that Kavanaugh tried to force himself on her while they were at a party at a house in Montgomery County, Maryland, tried to remove her clothing, and put his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream.

"I thought he might inadvertently kill me," Ford said. "He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing."

According to Vox, Ford initially communicated the allegations to Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Feinstein. According to the Post, she decided to go public with her story as she watched the news stories unfold.

Kavanaugh has "categorically and unequivocally" denied the allegations against him, saying he "did not do this back in high school or at any time." In a statement from the White House, Kavanaugh said, "I am willing to talk to the Senate Judiciary Committee in any way the Committee deems appropriate to refute this false allegation, from 36 years ago, and defend my integrity."

How lawmakers are handling the news

On Monday, Sept. 17, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced the committee planned to hold a public hearing on Monday, Sept. 24 and had invited both Kavanaugh and Ford to testify. The decision to delay the committee vote scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 20, came later in the week.

Kavanaugh agreed to testify. In a letter to Grassley he said, "I continue to want a hearing as soon as possible, so that I can clear my name." He added, "Since the moment I first heard this allegation, I have categorically and unequivocally denied it. I remain committed to defending my integrity."

But lawyers representing Ford on Thursday, Sept. 20, in a letter to Grassley said it was "not possible" for Ford to testify on Monday, Sept. 24, but she would be able to do so later in the week. "She wishes to testify, provided that we can agree on terms that are fair and which ensure her safety. A hearing on Monday is not possible and the committee's insistence that it occur then is arbitrary in any event," the letter stated.

Ford's lawyer earlier in the week suggested that she would be willing to testify but requested the FBI investigate the incident before the hearing and asked for additional witnesses to be heard at the hearing, the Wall Street Journal reports. The lawyers said Ford has been the target of "vicious harassment and even death threats" since going public with her allegations.

Several Democratic lawmakers have echoed calls for an FBI investigation, the Journal reports. However, Grassley in a statement released Wednesday, Sept. 19 said, "The Constitution assigns the Senate, and only the Senate, with the task of advising the President on his nominee and consenting to the nomination if the circumstances merit. We have no power to commandeer an Executive Branch agency into conducting our due diligence."

Kavanaugh's confirmation vote in limbo

Grassley has yet to set a new date for the committee to vote on Kavanaugh's nomination. A spokesperson for Grassley late Thursday, Sept. 20, said the senator planned to consult with colleagues on how to proceed, the Washington Post reports.

Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate and can afford to lose only one vote if all Democrats vote against the nominee. However, while many Democrats have said they would vote no if a vote occurred, the Journal reports several Democrats from more Republican-leaning states are viewed as potential "yes" votes.

If Kavanaugh is not confirmed before the Oct. 1 start date, the high court's session will proceed with eight justices. Any case that results in a split 4-4 vote could be held and reargued when a ninth justice is confirmed.

White House maintains support for Kavanaugh

On Monday, Sept. 17, Trump said, "We want to go through a full process ... and hear everybody out," adding, "[Kavanaugh] is one of the great intellects and one of the finest people. ... If it takes a little delay, it'll take a little delay."

However during a Thursday, Sept. 20, interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump said, "I don't think you can delay it a little longer." On Friday, Sept. 21, Trump's comments shifted in tone. In a tweet he wrote, "I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents," Trump wrote on Twitter. "I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!"

White House spokesperson Raj Shah said the president has no plans to name a replacement nominee unless there is a clear need. Shah said the Trump administration was going "full steam ahead" to support Kavanaugh (Andrews, Wall Street Journal, 9/19; Brown, Washington Post, 9/16; Zhou, Vox, 9/17; Peterson/Andrews, Wall Street Journal, 9/20; Desjardins, PBS Newshour, 9/18; Diaz et al., CNN, 9/19; Associated Press, 9/19; Gajanan, Time, 9/18; Bennett, Roll Call, 9/20; Min Kim et al., Washington Post, 9/20; Gay Stolberg, New York Times, 9/20; Fritze, USA Today, 9/21).

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