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Don't rush to judgment on Brett Kavanaugh

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during a ceremonial

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during a ceremonial swearing-in at the White House on Oct. 8, 2018. Credit: AP/Susan Walsh

My best middle-school teacher liked to use an exercise he called “Contradictions,” giving us two statements and asking us to identify the inconsistencies between them. So let’s try an example from recent news reports:

1. Charges of sexual misconduct against Brett Kavanaugh were not sufficiently investigated before he was confirmed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

2. Brett Kavanaugh should be impeached because he engaged in sexual misconduct and lied about it in his confirmation hearing.

So what’s the contradiction? Even a middle-schooler would recognize it: the first statement says that we don’t know enough about Kavanaugh’s actions, and the second assumes that we do.

That’s a problem for Democrats calling for Kavanaugh’s impeachment, including presidential candidates Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren. “We know he lied under oath,” O’Rourke recently tweeted about Kavanaugh. “He should be impeached.”

But we don’t know that, because federal officials failed to properly investigate claims against Kavanaugh before he was confirmed. The GOP-controlled Senate acted in haste, approving Kavanaugh before the facts were in. And Democrats echo that mistake by demanding his impeachment before they actually know what he did.

During Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, most of the controversy focused on accusations by Christine Blasey Ford that he sexually assaulted her in high school. There was much less attention to claims about his sexual misbehavior at Yale, where he allegedly thrust his penis at two women during drunken parties.

Lawyers representing one of the women, Deborah Ramirez, provided the FBI with a list of at least 25 people who might have possessed evidence supporting her claim. The FBI interviewed none of them, even after several of the witnesses tried to contact the agency. Still, it concluded there was not enough evidence to corroborate her allegations.

The second woman’s accusations have raised more hackles in recent days, especially among Kavanaugh’s supporters, because of a New York Times article that failed to mention that she does not remember the alleged episode. But the same article reported that a classmate of the woman, Max Stier, had notified the FBI about the alleged assault on her. So did U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who wrote the agency urging it to investigate.

As best we know, it didn’t. And that’s why Congress should hold hearings to figure out who knew about the claims, and what they did — or did not do — to probe the allegations. If Kavanaugh assaulted any woman, we should know; if he lied about his behavior, we should know; and if the FBI or Department of Justice covered it up, we should know.

But until we have the facts, we shouldn’t rush to judgment. That’s what the Senate did in confirming Kavanaugh. It would be sad — and ironic — if his foes did the same thing, by prematurely demanding his impeachment.

“Sexual predators do not deserve a seat on the nation’s highest court,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) said on Tuesday, introducing an impeachment resolution against Kavanaugh. She’s right about that. But she’s wrong to assume that Kavanaugh is a sexual predator. How could she know that, given that the FBI did so little to investigate?

To be fair, several prominent Democrats have denounced the move to impeach Kavanaugh. “We seem to have a habit of wanting to get to the verdict before we’ve gathered the evidence,” warned Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Yes, we do. That habit was on ugly display last fall, when Kavanaugh's Republican allies rammed through his confirmation. Shame on the Democrats, if they repeat the same error now.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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