Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh received an extended standing ovation from members of the conservative Federalist Society on Thursday night as he delivered his first high-profile speech since his tumultuous confirmation hearing a year ago.
He said his theme for the evening was “gratitude.”
Over the next several minutes he ran down a list of all who had stood by him over the past year and a half. The speech, a rare moment in the spotlight from a justice who has tried to stay out of the public eye since rising to the nation’s highest court, revealed that his confirmation – and the allegations of sexual misconduct that rocked the nation – is still a painful memory.
“There’s a saying that adversity introduces a man to himself, it also reveals your true friends,” he said.
As he spoke, a handful of protesters sitting at tables in the room blew high-pitched whistles – and were escorted out. After they left the room, it again erupted into applause.
Kavanaugh said he was “humbled” to be there and he singled out former White House counsel Don McGahn along with fellow Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, all of whom were in attendance, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who introduced him. He also mentioned each of the other justices by name and called Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg an “inspiration.”
Kavanaugh did not bring up the man who nominated him, President Donald Trump, likely because earlier in the day the President’s personal lawyers had filed a petition with the court.
At one point, his voice cracking, Kavanaugh thanked his family and reflected upon prayers his daughter had said at the time of his confirmation process. He stopped for a moment to compose himself and then joked, “Matt Damon would have made it through this” – a reference to a skit the actor performed on “Saturday Night Live” mimicking Kavanaugh.
Later Kavanaugh said that he and his family were “grateful for all the prayers.”
The speech also had light moments. He said that since his arrival Justice Elena Kagan had remarked upon a “significant increase” in sports talk and a “major decease” in “Shakespeare analysis” during the justices’ regularly scheduled lunches.
And he announced that as the junior-most justice assigned to the cafeteria committee, he was bringing pizza to the court.
“My legacy is secure,” he said to laughs.
At the end of the speech Kavanaugh said he was “optimistic about the future of America and our independent judiciary.”
The keynote speech at the black-tie gala, a little more than a year after allegations of sexual misconduct nearly derailed Kavanaugh’s confirmation, was in marked contrast to the very low public profile he’s kept since joining the Supreme Court. His time on the bench started with a private swearing-in, held away from protesters who swarmed the steps of the Supreme Court and banged on the monumental bronze doors as he took his oath inside. Kavanaugh has adamantly denied the allegations.
Attendees Thursday night, however, had to pass by a large electronic billboard replaying the congressional testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, who publicly accused Kavanaugh of assaulting her at a high school party decades ago. The demonstration was the work of Demand Justice, a liberal group opposed to Trump’s nominees.
For the crowd of conservatives, Kavanaugh – along with fellow Trump appointee Gorsuch – represents a resounding success after judicial conservatives have spent years in the trenches working to bring attention to the courts, vetting potential nominees in an effort to change the face of the judiciary. Republicans have pushed through more than 150 judges since Trump took office.
During his introduction, McConnell – who has made the judiciary a top priority – touted Senate Republicans’ success at bringing conservatives into the judicial ranks.
“Our progress is literally historic,” the Kentucky Republican said. “My motto for the rest of this year and next year is ‘Leave no vacancy behind.’ “
Kavanaugh is coming off an extraordinary first term for a junior justice. He was assigned two relatively meaty majority opinions, something most junior justices don’t see until they have spent more time on the bench. Opinion assignments are made by the chief justice or the most senior justice in the majority.
Chief Justice John Roberts assigned him an opinion concerning race in jury selection. Kavanaugh, writing for a 7-2 court, held that a death row inmate’s rights had been violated when a prosecutor who had tried him six times for murder engaged in unconstitutional racial discrimination when striking African American jurors from the panel. Ginsburg – the leading liberal on the court – gave him one opinion where he voted with his liberal colleagues to allow an antitrust class action lawsuit against Apple go forward.
Of all the justices, Kavanaugh and Roberts shared the highest agreement level of any pairing this term, according to statistics compiled by Adam Feldman for SCOTUSblog, a site focused on covering the Supreme Court.
Kavanaugh proceeded carefully at times in his first few months – including voting with Roberts, for instance, to decline a case concerning Planned Parenthood, over the objections of the more conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.
But at the end of the term, Kavanaugh’s conservative colors were on display. He voted with the majority when the court said it would not review cases concerning claims of partisan gerrymandering. He also voted to allow the administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census – a move that was blocked when Roberts joined with the liberals ruling against the President.
But in many ways, the last term was one of transition. This term, the justices are facing a docket of contentious issues concerning abortion, LGBT rights, immigration and the Second Amendment. During oral arguments earlier this week on a challenge to the Trump administration’s move to terminate the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields some undocumented immigrants from deportation, Kavanaugh suggested at one point that he might vote in favor of Trump – a move that would leave some 700,000 undocumented immigrants in legal limbo.
It is unclear if he will vote to allow the Trump administration to phase out the program.
The court is also poised to render judgment on cases directly involving Trump over the coming year. Hours before the speech, private lawyers for Trump asked the justices to block a subpoena for his tax records. Other cases related to Trump’s claims of immunity are likely to reach the justices in the coming weeks.
By all accounts, he was warmly received on the court. Last summer, Ginsburg told an audience at Duke that Gorsuch and Kavanaugh – her “two newest colleagues” – are “very decent, very smart individuals.” She also praised Kavanaugh last term for hiring an all-female slate of clerks.
But although as a lower court judge he often appeared on the speech circuit and as a guest lecturer, the Federalist Society event marked his first big outing. He had committed to giving the speech before the Federalist Society a year ago and has no other similar events on his calendar.