Dispute over documents dominates Kavanaugh hearing

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US supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing at the US senate has led to arguments over whether key documents are being withheld.

One Democrat risked senate discipline by releasing confidential material.

The newly disclosed email revealed that US president Donald Trump’s choice for America’s highest court once suggested the landmark Roe v Wade abortion case was not settled law.

The finger-pointing over the unusual vetting process for Mr Trump’s nominee made for a rough start for the final day of questioning for Mr Kavanaugh, who has so far avoided major mis-steps that could block his confirmation.

Republican John Cornyn of Texas said senators could be expelled from office for violating confidentiality rules, while Democrats led by Cory Booker of New Jersey responded: “Bring it on.”

The email showed that Mr Kavanaugh had taken a different tone on a 2003 abortion case than he had during Wednesday’s hearing when he stressed how difficult it is to overturn precedents like Roe.

In the email, Mr Kavanaugh was reviewing a potential article in support of two judicial nominees while he was working at the George W Bush White House. It had been held by the committee as confidential.

“I am not sure that all legal scholars refer to Roe as the settled law of the land at the supreme court level since court can always overrule its precedent, and three current justices on the court would do so,” Mr Kavanaugh wrote, referring to justices at the time, in an email to a Republican senate aide.

Asked about it by the committee’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, Mr Kavanaugh reiterated his previous testimony that “Roe v Wade is an important precedent of the supreme court”.

The 15-year-old email underlined a dispute that has dominated part of the hearing over Mr Kavanaugh’s unusually long paper trail stemming from his years in the Bush White House.

The panel’s process resulted in hundreds of thousands of pages of Kavanaugh’s documents being withheld as confidential or kept from release under presidential privilege by the Trump White House.

Cory Booker
Senator Cory Booker criticised the confirmation process (AP)

So far, Mr Kavanaugh appears on track towards confirmation in the Republican-held senate, but after a marathon 12-hour session on Wednesday, he also does not seem to have changed minds on the committee, which is split along partisan lines.

The judge left unanswered questions over how he would handle investigations of the executive branch and whether he would recuse himself if cases involving Donald Trump under special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe end up at the court.

Mr Trump said he was pleased with his nominee’s performance, and Republicans are united behind him, eager to add a conservative judge to the court.

Late in the evening, Mr Kavanaugh seemed to stumble at first when questioned by Democrat Kamala Harris of California about whom he might have spoken with at a law firm concerning the investigation into Russian election meddling. The firm in question was founded by Marc Kasowitz, who has represented Mr Trump.

Mr Kavanaugh eventually said he could not think of any such conversations but would need to see a list of the firm’s lawyers.

Protesters have repeatedly tried to interrupt the hearing, which has carried strong political overtones ahead of the November congressional elections.

Democrats lack the votes to block confirmation but have been pressing Mr Kavanaugh for his views on abortion rights, gun control and other issues.

On Wednesday the judge insisted he fully embraced the importance of judicial independence.

However, he refused to provide direct answers to Democrats who wanted him to say whether there are limits on a president’s power to issue pardons, including to himself or in exchange for a bribe.

He also would not say whether he believes the president can be subpoenaed to testify. Still, he began his long day in the witness chair by declaring that “no-one is above the law”.

Democrats are concerned that Mr Kavanaugh will push the court to the right and that he will side with Mr Trump in cases stemming from Mr Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible ties to the Trump campaign.

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