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Cortez Masto: A full FBI investigation would allow Kavanaugh to clear his name, be fair to victims

Humberto Sanchez
Humberto Sanchez

A thorough FBI investigation of sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is the best way for him to clear his name, provide a fair hearing for the victims and dispel allegations that the accusers are politically motivated, said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.

“There are serious allegations coming forward. I was a prosecutor for 10 years. I believe in a thorough, independent investigation,” Cortez Masto, who prosecuted sexual-assault crimes when she was Nevada attorney general for eight years, said in an interview Wednesday in her Washington, D.C. office.

She also believes the Senate has an opportunity to change the culture of blaming the victim in sexual assault cases as it assesses whether Kavanaugh, alleged to have sexually abused fellow students more than 30 years ago, should join the court.

“I spent a career fighting for victims' rights because I have seen how victims are too afraid to come forward because they’ll be shamed, they will be re-victimized, they will be blamed,” said the Nevada Democrat, who early in her career spent two years as a federal criminal prosecutor for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington. “And that is something that we have to change as a society, that culture of victim-blaming. This is a teaching example that we can share for our kids and everyone else.”

“These are our constituents,” she added, noting the women have nothing to gain from speaking up. “These women are coming forward in a very tough time.”

Cortez Masto has already said that she will vote against Kavanaugh, but she said she based her decision on his court opinions and not on the sex-abuse allegations.

She also said that it is not for the Senate to judge Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence, it is the chamber’s job only to decide whether or not to support his nomination to the highest court in the land after doing its due diligence and taking into account the responsibility that entails.

Her comments come after a third person, Julie Swetnick, alleged Wednesday that Kavanaugh, while in high school, along with his friend, Mark Judge, were “present” when she was “gang raped” in 1982, according to a sworn declaration. She said that she “consistently witnessed [Kavanaugh] engage in excessive drinking and inappropriate contact of a sexual nature with women during the early 1980s.” Swetnick is represented by Michael Avenatti, a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 and the lawyer representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels in her suit against President Donald Trump.

Kavanaugh immediately denied the allegation. “This is ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone. I don’t know who this is and this never happened,” he said in a statement provided by the White House.

He has also denied allegations from Deborah Ramirez, a Yale classmate, who claimed he exposed himself to her without consent while they were both freshmen in college. And he has denied sexually assaulting California-based psychologist Christine Blasey Ford when they were both high school students.

A fourth allegation also came to light Wednesday when it was reported that Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner received an anonymous letter Saturday detailing a time in 1998 when Kavanaugh allegedly acted sexually inappropriately with a woman.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear from both Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh on Thursday in one of the most anticipated congressional hearings in years. The panel could vote as soon as Friday on Kavanaugh’s nomination. Assuming a Friday vote, irrespective of whether he wins a majority on the committee, the full Senate could hold a procedural vote to cut off debate on the nomination as soon as Monday if it stays in session over the weekend. A final vote could come before the end of next week, under this timeline.

But that timing depends on what happens at the hearing and the panel’s response to the other allegations.

Cortez Masto decried the process, which she argued has been rushed by an arbitrary desire on the part of the GOP to confirm Kavanaugh by early October. (Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller has signaled his intention to back Kavanaugh.)

“I think it’s horrible, I really do,” she said. “I take very seriously the advice and consent" role of the Senate on executive branch nominations.

Republicans argue that the process was spoiled by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, who was aware of Blasey Ford’s allegation before a nomination hearing earlier this month. Feinstein has said she kept the information to herself at the request of Blasey Ford. Republicans claim she deprived them of the opportunity to investigate before the 11th hour, while protecting the anonymity of Blasey Ford and the right to due process for Kavanaugh.

“If it had been handled during the normal, conventional process, it would have protected Dr. Ford, it would have protected the nominee from this circus-like atmosphere,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, Wednesday on the Senate floor.

But Cortez Masto had particularly pointed words for the 11 Republican men on the judiciary panel — which includes Cornyn — who have brought in Rachel Mitchell, the deputy county attorney in the Maricopa County attorney's office in Phoenix, to question Blasey Ford. Mitchell, a Republican, has extensive experience in sexual-assault cases.

The panel "is the only place that I have seen where someone can come in and do your job for you,” she said. “I think the senators should be asking the questions. I don’t understand why they can’t figure out how to ask a respectful, fair, inoffensive question to the witnesses.”

She believes a less rushed, more deliberative process would help yield a better result.

“I think we can do that in the Senate,” Cortez Mato continued. “We are adults. We can figure this out. We can still have a hearing to determine whether or not Judge Kavanaugh should sit on the highest court in the land based on his background, his fitness, his character, his judicial demeanor and his philosophy. We can figure out how to do this and still be respectful to Dr. Ford and the many other women that have come forward.”

Another point of contention has been access to documents from Kavanaugh’s past. Republicans made some documents “committee confidential,” meaning only members of the judiciary panel could look at them and they could not be discussed in open session. However, Republicans eventually allowed any senator seeking to view the documents to do so, which Cortez Masto did.

But she contends the record on his career remains incomplete because most of the documents from Kavanaugh's time as staff secretary in the George W. Bush White House were not requested by Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who argued that those documents were not necessary for senators to determine what kind of judge Kavanaugh would be.

“I think we should all have equal access to information,” she said. “We should be working together. We should have a full vetting.”

Kavanaugh’s nomination marks only the second time she has had to weigh in on a Supreme Court nomination. But it was last year with the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, who Cortez Masto opposed, that she noticed a shift towards partisanship in the process.

In April 2017, just prior to Gorsuch’s confirmation, Senate Republicans changed the procedures for confirming Supreme Court nominees. Using a maneuver known as the nuclear option, the GOP got rid of the filibuster for nominations to the Supreme Court so they could confirm Gorsuch with no Democratic votes, if needed. Now, a majority of those voting advances a nomination instead of the 60 votes that were needed to overcome a filibuster before the change. Gorsuch received three Democratic votes. It’s unclear if Kavanaugh will receive any if his nomination is taken up by the full Senate. 

“There’s no doubt that indicated to me, as a new senator, that the process was changing for the purposes of those in control at the time, which were the Republicans,” she said.

But she demurred when asked about her predecessor, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and his decision in 2013 to repeal the filibuster for all nominations except Supreme Court justices.

“I wasn’t here then,” she said when asked about the wisdom of Reid’s leadership. “But I will tell you what I have seen is the erosion of this idea that senators should be working together in a bipartisan way. I believe in it still. That's why I came here. I do believe in compromise.”

She also declined to say if she would vote to restore the filibuster for any or all of the nominations affected by Reid’s move.

“Let me just tell you this, I’d like to be in a position where we have a chance to make that decision, but we are not there right now,” Cortez Masto said.


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