If Supreme Court Justice William Brennan were posthumously discovered to have aggressively groped a girl once in high school, should that fact discredit his landmark opinions expanding press freedom, legal protections for criminal defendants, and voting and welfare rights? Would it have been better for the country, from a liberal perspective, if Brennan's judicial career had been derailed from the start? What about Justice John Marshall Harlan, whose groundbreaking 1896 dissent from the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson declared that the Constitution was "color-blind" and rejected state-sponsored segregation? If Harlan had once jumped on a girl as a 17-year-old, should that one-time outbreak of boorish adolescent male hormones efface his contributions as a public thinker?
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The Democratic response to the allegation that 3½ decades ago Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted a girl at a teenage beer party bears many hallmarks of campus culture, from the admonition that "survivors" should always be believed to the claim that the veracity of the accusation matters less than the history of white-male privilege. But the most significant import from academic feminism is the idea that a long-ago incident of adolescent sexual misbehavior (assuming that the assault happened as described, which Kavanaugh has categorically denied) should trump a lifetime record of serious legal thought and government service. Now the New Yorker is charging that Kavanaugh exposed himself to a Yale classmate at a party, ramping up outrage to the point that feminists are demanding that the hearings they wanted be canceled — though the New York Times regarded the latest allegation as too flimsy to publish.
The feminist nostrum that the personal is political is being weaponized to subordinate the public realm of ideas to the private realm of sexual relations — all, ironically, in the service of a highly political end: preventing a judicial conservative from being seated on the high court. If it turned out that James Madison had groped his domestics, it would be absurd to discard the constitutional separation of powers on that ground. Madison's political insights are more important to civilization than any hypothetical chauvinist indiscretions.
The demand to derail the Kavanaugh nomination is particularly absurd when the alleged incidents (lacking any corroborating specificity of time and place in one case, or any witnesses able to confirm the story in the second) are balanced against Kavanaugh's subsequent relations with women. Kavanaugh has had an unblemished record of treating women with respect. He was the first judge on the D.C. Circuit to have an all-female class of clerks, and over the course of his 12 years on the federal bench, most of his clerks have been women. Working for a judge is an intense experience that includes late nights editing draft opinions, an environment that invites erotic complications. Yet Kavanaugh's female clerks have been unanimous in testifying to his character.
His legal peers share that judgment. After his nomination, the dean of the Yale law school (from which Kavanaugh graduated) lauded his principles. "Ever since I joined the faculty," announced Heather Gerken, "I have admired him for serving as a teacher and mentor to our students and for hiring a diverse set of clerks, in all respects, during his time on the court." Abbe Gluck, a Yale professor of health law, also noted Kavanaugh's respect for diversity: "Brett Kavanaugh is a true intellectual — a leading thinker and writer on the subjects of statutory interpretation and federal courts; an incomparable mentor—someone who picks law clerks of all backgrounds and viewpoints; and a fair-minded jurist who believes in the rule of law."
Ironically, Hillary Clinton had it right when she called her husband's affair with a White House intern a "lapse," notwithstanding that it represented an abuse of workplace hierarchies. She was right to complain that the anti-Clinton "feeding frenzy" was using the criminal justice system to "achieve political ends." Hillary and her feminist peers had a better grip then on the relative importance of the private and the public than Bill Clinton's right-wing persecutors.
Today, of course, Clinton and her supporters are singing a different tune. But Kavanaugh's feminist opponents have yet to articulate the limits of the principle being advanced here. If his Supreme Court nomination is scuttled, is he fit to return to the D.C. bench? If not, what about serving in a law firm? How far does this go? Will they take their own claims seriously enough to pursue criminal charges and put him behind bars?
It is feminist narcissism to put flimsy accusations of teenage impropriety ahead of a lifetime of achievement in the law. The priorities look like a revenge attack on a civilization deemed too male.