US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is being evaluated right now to see if he is qualified to be a supreme court justice for the United States. I had been following along as the Senate Judiciary Committee conducted their hearing of the SCOTUS nominee (don’t you just love these ridiculous acronyms?). It started to look like the same dull stuff with the Republicans slowly dragging the loudly objecting Democrats towards a swearing-in ceremony, just in time before the November midterm elections.
Then the news started exploding with another story, a story of sexual assault.
I’ll let you search for more details but as a humble recap, a woman – a psychologist and professor from California – came forward in July (when Brett Kavanaugh was nominated) with a story regarding something Brett Kavanaugh and another young man did to her when they were all in high school.
I confess to originally giving these allegations the squinty eye because I’ve come to be quite the cynic when it comes to political games with our sensibilities and emotions. I don’t like being toyed with and I don’t like things coming up at the last minute that could have been addressed years ago.
But then, I find myself deep in thought lately and while chewing through an over-crunchy fried egg and burnt toast I’m starting to see several overlapping issues in this case.
During the first part of Judge Kavanaugh’s hearing he kept his answers straightforward and simple. But there was one word he used over and over again — precedent. Precedent means a decision that becomes an example or guide for what to do when similar circumstances happen again. In law, a precedent is a legal case that establishes a principle or rule and is used to help make future decisions about similar cases.
We’re not formal judges in a courtroom, but we are all familiar with the idea of a precedent, whether we realize it or not. As parents we act as judges all the time, setting and using precedents to determine consequences. Bosses set and use precedents with how they treat company employees. Kids in school pick up on social precedents very quickly too. Our society as a whole has come to use certain precedents so much that they have essentially become part of our culture.
Like how we’ve been dealing with an issue like sexual assault.
When I was younger any discussion about rape or sexual assault would almost always include speculative questions like, “Well, what was she wearing? Was she intoxicated?” I’d also often hear assumptions and judgment like, “She was probably asking for it.” or maybe “If she hadn’t been at that party, it wouldn’t have happened.” And of course, the famous “Boys will be boys.” All these messages taught me that it was my responsibility to avoid sexual assault. It also led me to blame other women for not being careful enough or making poor choices. Rarely would I think about the man and his criminal act. He, apparently, was just doing what was expected of him. It also didn’t help that I was often exposed to my peers’ (and even distant relatives’) inappropriate behavior of which everyone simply shrugged off as normal.
This isn’t the first time a Supreme Court nominee has been in danger of losing his chance because of allegations of this nature. Justice Clarence Thomas and attorney Anita Hill could tell you all about it. Reviewing some of what happened in that case in 1991 I can see a lot of the same cultural precedents playing a role in the proceedings. “Are you a scorned woman?” – Senator from Alabama “…‘women’s large breasts’. That’s a word we use all the time.” – Senator from Pennsylvania.
No big deal lady. You’re the only one standing up to smear this good man’s name. You must be mentally unstable.
I don’t know Brett Kavanaugh or even have a strong opinion whether he would be a good Supreme Court justice or not. But, I can’t help thinking that while some of us want to dismiss this latest development as some political stunt, there might be a greater opportunity to affect positive change depending on how we deal with this.
There is a clear divide. Many people are coming out in strong support of the California professor, sharing sympathy and understanding along with their own experiences. Another group is falling into the trap of placing blame, saying she should have come out sooner, suspecting that she’s likely lying, and so on. I have a feeling we are going to continue to see a lot of theatrics for our benefit on both sides.
Whatever happens we, the American people, have a chance to be the judge and decide whether to follow the previous precedent… or help set a new one.