The Senate shamed itself in its handling of Anita Hill. Can it do better with Kavanaugh's accuser?

The first inkling that perhaps the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh — charges that went from confidential to fully named and on the record (thanks to The Washington Post’s Emma Brown) over the weekend — might yet be handled in a responsible and respectful manner came from an unlikely source speaking on an improbable venue. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said during a Monday morning interview on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” that Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, a 51-year-old California research psychologist, “should not be insulted, and she should not be ignored.”

President Donald Trump has maintained full support of his Supreme Court nominee, and he clearly views Mr. Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a top priority, regardless of these accusations. Ms. Conway is a tireless, passionate and often fanciful defender of President Donald Trump, and “Fox & Friends” is the go-to venue for “alternative facts” in that pursuit. Yet Ms. Conway sent an unmistakable message to Senate leadership, perhaps even to her boss and certainly to the American people that Ms. Ford’s charges are to be taken seriously. It’s a shame that Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not arrive at that conclusion first. Of course, it’s foolish for the committee to vote on the Kavanaugh nomination on Thursday with such a serious allegation unaddressed by the Senate. It is not just unfair to Ms. Ford — and to Mr. Kavanaugh for that matter — but to all Americans who have a right to expect the Senate to have a full and fair evaluation of the nominee before deciding whether to approve this lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court. It has already failed to do so when it comes to a reasonable vetting of Mr. Kavanaugh’s judicial views; to fail again on a topic of visceral concern to Americans of both sexes would be inexcusable.

Too much about these circumstances have been cast in purely political terms — chiefly as speculation over the impact on mid-term elections. (Do Democrats benefit from delay? Do Republicans?) That’s insider nonsense. The question at hand is a far more basic one: Did Mr. Kavanaugh sexually assault Ms. Ford under the circumstances she has described more than three decades ago when both were high school students in suburban Maryland? And if he did, or if there’s sufficient grounds to believe something like what Ms. Ford has described took place, should it be disqualifying? Those are not easy questions, and we would caution those who have already lined up either for or against Mr. Kavanaugh not to prejudge the matter.

Twenty-seven years ago when Clarence Thomas was nominated to take Thurgood Marshall’s seat on the same court, an FBI interview with attorney and former Thomas colleague Anita Hill was leaked, and the hearings that followed are recalled as a low point in Supreme Court nominations. Mr. Thomas described it as a “high-tech lynching,” but it was Ms. Hill who was treated most roughly by the all-white panel, criticized as some kind of off-kilter groupie, her testimony savaged by people like Sen. Orrin Hatch as contrived and inspired by the novel “The Exorcist.” Could such an absurd and misogynistic kangaroo court happen again in the midst of the #MeToo movement?

What makes the present circumstances all the more outrageous is that there’s absolutely nothing lost by a delay to give time for a further investigation by the FBI and the committee. Not seating Mr. Kavanaugh by the first Monday in October would hardly be a disaster. The Senate was perfectly fine with leaving Judge Merrick Garland to twist in the wind and the court to go without a ninth member for most of Barack Obama’s last year in office. Clearly, the necessity of filling that seat is in the eye of the beholder.

We have already gone on the record about where we stand on the Kavanaugh nomination. We thought he wasn’t properly vetted. Questions about whether his legal views are too extreme on matters like women’s reproductive rights or executive power remain wholly unsettled, and if he is confirmed under these circumstances, it will be the death of any meaningful role for the Senate as a check on a president’s power to nominate judges. But that has nothing to do with this. What Ms. Ford has described is criminal behavior no matter the age or level of intoxication involved, and she has some corroboration — conversations with her husband, notes taken by her therapist years ago and a polygraph test administered by a former FBI agent this summer. That raises too many questions about the nominee to let this process proceed any further. And while that may serve the interests of those who oppose the nominee, it serves no one’s interests (including the nominee’s) to ignore this serious charge or fail to give Ms. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh a chance to testify in public about what did or did not happen in Montgomery County that night.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad