The Senate Judiciary Committee has decided to delay the vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination in order to receive testimony from his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, and Kavanaugh himself, in regard to recent sexual assault allegations against the Supreme Court nominee. This decision comes after Ford requested an FBI investigation occur before she testified, though it appears that will not be the case. Further, she and her lawyers have complained about the fact that the hearing will only involve two witnesses: Kavanaugh and Ford herself, as they fear it may turn into a “he said, she said” scenario.

Ford accused Kavanaugh of attempted rape when he was 17 and she was 15. Ford originally revealed this information in July in a letter to her Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., and later to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat of the Judiciary Committee. Ford requested the story stay confidential. Thus, Feinstein refused to share the contents of the letter with the rest of the Senate Judiciary Committee until last week, when the story went public.

It is not clear this was the best decision, though — there are many paths Feinstein could have taken to treat the allegations with proper urgency and seriousness while simultaneously keeping Ford’s identity confidential. Allowing a letter consisting of such heinous accusations against a potential Supreme Court nominee to sit on her desk for six weeks was irresponsible on her behalf. It merely delayed the firestorm that was bound to come, and ironically, it left both Feinstein and Ford with less agency over the situation than if the senator had taken control of the situation from the beginning.

Whether she would have confidentially shared the story with the Judiciary Committee, gone to the FBI sooner or even shared the essence of the story publicly, there could have been precautions taken to protect Ford’s identity. Rather, the media obtained the story and everything else had to fall into place within a few days.

This is not the first time the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee hasn’t been responsible about handling sexual misconduct allegations against a Supreme Court nominee — history is eerily cyclical. I’m referring, of course, to the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation, during which Anita Hill testified Thomas had sexually harassed her. Former Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., infamously blocked three other women from testifying in order to quickly move the proceedings forward. The Democrats, the majority party in the Senate at the time, were accused of rushing the process along and not treating the allegations with proper reverence. Thomas now sits on the Supreme Court.

The Democrats cannot be the political party of 1991 in 2018. They should be as vigilant as possible in opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination in light of these allegations. It was suggested in The New Yorker that Feinstein did not come forward with Ford’s allegations sooner because she “acted out of a sense that Democrats would be better off focussing on legal, rather than personal, issues in their questioning of Kavanaugh.” However, that sentiment is misguided. Attempted rape is a criminal act, and placing a criminal on the Supreme Court has implications beyond “personal issues.” Though separating personal and political may have once been the norm, the #MeToo era managed to break through that barrier. Additionally, Democrats risk succumbing to Republican pressure to rush the process: a parallel to 1991.

Less than a year ago, Democrats pushed Al Franken out of Congress after various credible sexual misconduct allegations against him surfaced. This modern record of holding abusers accountable for their actions buffers them from appearing disingenuous in fighting Kavanaugh’s nomination. Rather than appearing politically motivated, Democrats only face the risk of backing down and once again coming off as spineless and without any clear conviction.

Dianne Feinstein won her Senate seat in 1992, which was deemed the “Year of the Woman” because a record number of women were elected to Congress after outrage over the treatment of Hill. There were no women on the Senate Judiciary Committee to stand in solidarity with Hill in 1991.

27 years later and there are four women serving on the committee (all of whom are Democrats) — I hope this means Ford will have voices of solidarity, and not that four women sit there to maintain the status quo of an institutionalized boy’s club. I hope she will not be deprecated as Hill was, and I hope a sexual predator will not be making decisions with massive implications for sexual assault on campus, birth control and abortion access, and the right to women’s bodily autonomy.

Margot Libertini can be reached at mliberti@umich.edu.

 

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