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Justice Brett Kavanaugh Hits the Ground Running on First Day on Supreme Court

Kavanaugh Court
JOSHUA CAPLAN

Newly minted Justice Brett Kavanaugh on Tuesday made his presence felt in his first day on the Supreme Court, peppering counsel with questions amid a “jovial” mood inside the Supreme Court, according to reports.

The new justice dived into his new job, asking a handful of questions in the first arguments of the day following a traditional welcome from Chief Justice John Roberts, who wished Kavanaugh “a long and happy career in our common calling.”

Kavanaugh took his seat at the end of bench to Roberts’ far left just after 10:00 a.m., a visible manifestation of a moment that Republicans have dreamed of and Democrats have dreaded for decades, with five conservative justices on the court. His path to confirmation was met with immense opposition from Democrats and left-wing groups — which intensified after Christine Blasey Ford accused him of sexually assaulting her, allegations Kavanaugh denied and which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found to be uncorroborated.

In court, Kavanaugh asked questions of both sides in arguments over increased prison sentences for repeat offenders. He jumped in with his first question after most of the other justices had spoken. Questions from Kavanaugh and Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s two high court picks, suggested they could vote against the Trump administration and side with a criminal defendant from Florida who is fighting an increase in his sentence from just over six years to possibly more than 15 years.

In his first-ever question as a Supreme Court justice, Kavanaugh posed the following query to Denard Stokeling’s attorney, regarding Johnson v. United States:

But — but, counsel — counsel, in Curtis Johnson, you rely heavily on the general statements of the Court, but the application of those general statements was to something very specific: Battery and a mere tap on the shoulder. And all Curtis Johnson seemed to hold was that that was excluded. So why don’t we follow what Curtis Johnson seemed to do in applying those general statements to the specific statute at issue here and why wouldn’t that then encompass the Florida statute, which requires more than, say, a tap on the shoulder?

There were no disruptions in the courtroom and the justices laughed at each other’s jokes. Justice Sonia Sotomayor even appeared to playfully pinch Gorsuch’s arm as she asked a question about the kind of physical force necessary to have a crime be treated as violent under a federal enhanced sentencing law.

The newest justice’s wife and two daughters were in seats reserved for justices’ guests, along with retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kavanaugh replaced Kennedy on the bench. The 53-year-old Kavanaugh occasionally chatted privately with his seatmate, Justice Elena Kagan. From time to time, he put on reading glasses to refer to papers in front of him.

There was a long line of people hoping to see Kavanaugh’s first appearance. Police put up barricades in front of the court, but there were few protesters in the early morning.

Kavanaugh has had busy days since he was confirmed Saturday. That evening, he took his oaths of office in a private ceremony at the Supreme Court while protesters chanted outside the court building.

On Monday evening, he was the guest of honor at a ceremonial swearing-in at the White House, where Trump apologized on behalf of the nation for “the terrible pain and suffering” Kavanaugh and his family had suffered. “On behalf of the nation, I’d like to apologize to Brett and the entire Kavanaugh family for the terrible pain and suffering you’ve been forced to endure,” President Trump said.

“Those who step forward to serve our country deserve a fair and dignified evaluation, not a campaign of political and personal destruction based on lies and deception,” he added.

Speaking before well-wishers, Kavanaugh said that while the confirmation process “tested” him, his “approach” remains the same. “My focus now is to be the best justice I can be. I take this office with gratitude and no bitterness. On the Supreme Court I will seek to be a force for stability and unity,” he said. “My goal is to be a great justice for all Americans and for all of America.”

“I was not appointed to serve one party or one interest, but to serve one nation. America’s constitution and laws protect every person of every belief and every background. Every litigant at the Supreme Court can be assured that I will listen to their argument with respect and an open mind,” the newly minted Justice added.

Kavanaugh has also begun moving in to his new office at the Supreme Court, taking over space previously used by Justice Samuel Alito, who moved into offices vacated by Kennedy. Kavanaugh has also hired four clerks, all women – the first time that has happened.

On Wednesday, the only other day of arguments this week, the court will hear another two hours of arguments. One of the two cases the court is hearing then involves the detention of immigrants, an issue on which Kavanaugh’s vote could be key.

Though he missed the court’s first week, none of the six cases argued dealt with blockbuster issues. They included a case about a potential habitat for an endangered frog and another about an Alabama death row inmate whose lawyers argue he shouldn’t be executed because dementia has left him unable to remember his crime. Kavanaugh won’t vote in those cases, but if the court is split 4-4 it could decide to have those cases re-argued so Kavanaugh can break the tie.

As the newest member of the court, Kavanaugh will take on a few special jobs. He will take notes for the justices when they meet for private conferences. He’ll also be the one to answer the door at those meetings if someone knocks to deliver something such as a justice’s coffee or forgotten glasses. Further, Kavanaugh will also sit on the committee overseeing the court’s public cafeteria.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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