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What you should know about Brett Kavanaugh’s life and record

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has a thoroughly Washington resume. He clerked for the Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom he's tapped to replace, was a top official in the Ken Starr investigation of President Clinton, served in the George W. Bush administration and won a seat on the powerful D.C. circuit court of appeals. Lisa Desjardins explores how those experiences shaped his record.

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  • John Yang:

    Tomorrow, Brett Kavanaugh faces the Senate Judiciary Committee in the first day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

    Today — tonight, rather, Lisa Desjardins has a look at the man and his record.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Brett Kavanaugh been here before, before the Senate Judiciary Committee and before many of the same senators, 12 years ago.

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    I have dedicated my career to public service.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The aim then was his current job, a judgeship on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Then, as now, Republicans praised Kavanaugh's qualifications.

  • Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah:

    And I don't see how we can find a better person to serve and give public service than you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    While committee Democrats, like Senator Chuck Schumer, said he was too political.

  • Sen. Chuch Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    If there's been a partisan political fight that needed a very bright legal foot soldier in the last decade, Brett Kavanaugh was probably there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It was a pivotal Washington test for Kavanaugh, who has a thoroughly Washington resume. Born and raised in the nation's capital, he returned after Yale Law School to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the justice Kavanaugh is now tapped to replace.

    Kavanaugh's next job dropped him into a once-in-a-generation spectacle. He became a deputy on independent counsel Ken Starr's investigation of President and Mrs. Clinton, and he helped draft parts of Starr's report that detailed possible legal grounds for impeaching Mr. Clinton.

    Since then, Kavanaugh has openly questioned the power of independent prosecutors, including the Supreme Court ruling that upheld their existence as constitutional.

  • Paul Gigot:

    Can you think of a case that deserves to be overturned?

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    Yes?

  • Paul Gigot:

    Would you volunteer one?

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    No.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    I'm going to say one, Morrison v. Olson.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Gigot:

    That's the independent counsel statute case.

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    It's been effectively overruled, but I would — I would the final nail in.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Kavanaugh has also questioned if presidents should be prosecuted at all, writing in a 2009 law review article, "The indictment and trial of a sitting president would cripple the federal government. Such an outcome would ill-serve the public interest."

    Kavanaugh soon had another brush with history, joining the George W. Bush campaign team in Florida in 2004 for the state's decisive recount. The Bush win led Kavanaugh to the Bush White House, where he eventually became staff secretary, overseeing the flow of documents into the Oval Office.

    Democrats, like Senator Patrick Leahy, seized on that role and Bush White House controversies at Kavanaugh's 2006 confirmation hearing.

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.:

    Did you see documents of the president related to the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program?

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    No.

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.:

    What about documents related to the administration's policies and practice on torture? Did you see any documents on that whatsoever going to the president?

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    No.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    His final confirmation vote was among the more partisan of the time, 57 votes for, 36 against, and seven senators didn't vote at all.

    Kavanaugh has had a life outside law and politics, for example, coaching his daughter's basketball team in a Catholic youth league in the Washington area.

    But Judge Kavanaugh is best known for his writing, hundreds of opinion and dozens of speeches and articles. Those reveal his role models. That's what he once called conservative icon and late Justice Antonin Scalia. And last year, he pointed to a different former justice, a chief justice, in a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    I wanted to speak about William Rehnquist because he was my first judicial hero.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In 1973, Rehnquist was one of two justices who dissented in Roe v. Wade, the landmark case legalizing abortion.

    Kavanaugh addressed that in last year's speech.

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    It's fair to say that Justice Rehnquist wasn't successful in convincing a majority of the justices in the context of abortion either in Roe itself or in the later cases. But he was successful in stemming the general tide of freewheeling traditional creation of unenumerated rights that were not rooted in the nation's history and tradition.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Kavanaugh's own judicial record on the abortion issue is thin, but it includes a notable case in the past year, Azar v. Garza, which weighed if the Trump administration had to allow an undocumented teenage girl in its custody to obtain an abortion.

    Kavanaugh voted for a compromise ruling, which assumed the girl had a right to an abortion, but which also said the government didn't have to help her get it. It gave the government more time to find a solution. That was quickly overturned by others on his appeals court, and the government was ordered to immediately allow the abortion.

    Kavanaugh sharply criticized that as "a radical extension of the Supreme Court's abortion rulings."

    That opinion and his experience were selling points in the president's eyes.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Judge Kavanaugh has devoted his life to public service.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But Kavanaugh's long record is also fodder for senators as he faces the Judiciary Committee for the most important confirmation hearing of his life.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

  • John Yang:

    This week, we will broadcast the confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh. It begins tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time. Check your local PBS station for broadcast details.

    We will also be streaming it at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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