SAN DIEGO -- Judging Supreme Court nominees is tricky. Whether the assessment is taking place formally by lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary Committee, or informally by everyday Americans at water coolers across the country, there are many unknowns.
Nominees are usually careful not to give any hints during their confirmation hearings about how they might decide issues that could come before the high court. They would likely never make a promise about how they might rule on a case; but, even if they did, they could always break that promise once on the court. Any views they have expressed in the past could be changed -- at the hearing or in years to come. And if confirmed and seated on the Supreme Court, they could change from liberal to conservative or vice versa quicker than you can say “lifetime appointment.”
Whenever there is a Supreme Court vacancy, Americans waste a lot of emotion speculating about whether a nominee would be a good fit. Then Washington-based special-interest groups tap into that emotion to raise money from the true believers. A cause becomes a racket.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
But, in reality, we don’t know what’s going to happen if a person is confirmed. It’s a gamble either way.
So, when assessing Supreme Court nominees, I have my own test. And it is based on just one thing: character. That’s what I look for, and -- in this process, as in life -- it’s the only thing that matters.
Judging from his remarks at the White House last week when his nomination was announced, federal appeals court Judge Brett Kavanaugh has buckets of character. He radiates it.
Where did the 53-year-old get all this character?
Maybe it was from his religion and his Catholic upbringing; the former altar boy was schooled by Jesuits and now volunteers serving meals to the homeless through Catholic Charities.
Maybe it was from the hard work and dedication that Kavanaugh obviously poured into a top-flight education at Georgetown Preparatory School, Yale University and Yale Law School.
Maybe it was from teaching young law students at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown. He is generally regarded, according to news reports, as one of the more popular members of the faculty, someone who is accessible and helpful to students.
Maybe it came from a career of public service -- as an attorney working with independent counsel Kenneth Starr in the 1990s, as a lawyer advocating for George W. Bush in the Florida recount in 2000, later as staff secretary in the Bush White House, and most recently as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
My guess is that Kavanaugh got most of his character from his parents, who appear to have worked hard in their own lives to accomplish their dreams and seem to have taught him well. An only child, Kavanaugh obviously loves, respects, even idolizes his parents -- especially his mother, who herself went from high school teacher to prosecutor to judge. The son is clearly just as proud of his mother as she is of him.
But aside from the question of where Kavanaugh’s character comes from, how do we even know he has it?
That’s easy. Look at how he talked about his family -- not just his parents but also the people who know him best because they live with him, his wife and daughters. Given all his accomplishment and accolades, he obviously considers it the great privilege of his life to be husband to Ashley and father to Elizabeth and Margaret. In his remarks, he said, “I thank God every day for my family.”
So what should Americans look for in a Supreme Court nominee?
That’s also easy. We’re conditioned to worship “the big” -- those who went to big-name schools, have done big things, have big credentials, have racked up big accomplishments.
Yet we have that upside down. We need to look for “the small” -- individuals who have the perspective to consider their family, their country and their God and see themselves as small by comparison.
With Supreme Court justices, we also want people who have the additional quality of seeing themselves as small next to the U.S. Constitution.
We’ll learn more about this particular nominee in the coming days. Liberals and Democrats are on the attack and looking for flaws. It’s just politics. They were going to oppose anyone nominated by President Trump.
But for now, the evidence suggests that Brett Kavanaugh has tons of character. And that is a great place to start.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.