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Kavanaugh details teamwork at odds with high court’s stats

The Trump appointee rebutted claims that controversial cases on the high court’s docket has led to feuds between the justices. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — Justice Brett Kavanaugh refuted claims of division on the Supreme Court, praising both his conservative and liberal colleagues in a speech where he likened their work to that of a sports team.

“Obviously we have difficult cases,” the Trump appointee said Monday in an appearance at Norte Dame Law School that has since been posted on YouTube.. “We disagree passionately on some, but I personally think that I try to participate in thinking about a team of nine. And I think my colleagues do the same. It's a great honor to be part of it.” 

Speculation about tension on the high court has been fueled in part by a tumultuous term that offered a slew of conservative rulings on religion, guns and abortion. Those rulings came on top of a leaked draft opinion that was seen as a serious breach of trust in the normally tight-lipped institution. 

While at times the justices have appeared hostile on the bench this term, Kavanaugh said there is no trace of that behind the scenes. He spoke about lunches the justices hold after oral arguments as well as the private conferences where talk of work is strictly banned. 

“You talk about the things that you would talk about with your friends,” Kavanaugh said. “You talk about your kids, you talk about movies, you talk about books, you talk about war stories, again and again. When Justice Breyer comes, you talk about things you don't know anything about.” 

Kavanaugh said this time spent together allows the justices to better understand what it might be like to stand in each other's shoes when they have a particularly tough case with strong disagreements. He specifically noted his experiences with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and how she and Justice Stephen Breyer welcomed him onto the court during his first term. 

The justices traditionally hold a welcome dinner for new members on the court. When Kavanaugh hosted this dinner for Justice Amy Coney Barrett, he said he toasted her for being an “unusually good person.” 

“I think that sums up a lot about her,” Kavanaugh said of Barrett. “She's just an excellent colleague at oral argument — her opinions, her thoughtfulness, her dedication, how well prepared she is.” 

Kavanaugh said the court’s newest member, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, shared some of these traits as well. 

“Now we have Ketanji Jackson — my thing about being fully prepared — she is fully prepared, thoroughly prepared,” Kavanaugh said. “The No. 1 thing that I mentioned that I think makes a good judge, and she's off to a great start, ... she's thoroughly prepared and hit the ground running.” 

The high court has received criticism from court watchers for deciding cases along ideological lines. Experts have warned that the perception that the justices decide cases based on their preferences versus the rule of law will undermine the court’s legitimacy. Kavanaugh said this perception isn’t always true. 

“Just to think about last term, which was obviously a term with some tough cases and people pay a lot of attention to them — which I understand and completely respect — but we had a lot of cases that did not follow the usual pattern that were big cases,” Kavanaugh said. 

He noted the 5-4 opinion from Chief Justice John Roberts in which the majority sided with the Biden administration over asylum policies. Kavanaugh cited another Roberts opinion, the court’s 8-1 ruling that allowed a spiritual adviser to touch a death row inmate while he is executed. And he noted Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s opinion on the First Step Act as well as a First Amendment case involving a Texas billboard.  

“When you get into that docket, you see, I think, methodological consistency bias but with results that, you might think, 'I didn't expect that result,'” Kavanaugh said. 

When writing opinions, Kavanaugh noted, he tries to make sure the losing side feels its arguments were taken seriously. 

“I think over time — that systemic way to treat that party well at oral argument and that party well in the opinion — over time, that builds respect, I think, for what we're doing and for the rule of law,” Kavanaugh said. 

The Supreme Court faced some criticism for a historic late start to handing down opinions this term. Kavanaugh said this is not reflective of division between the justices but rather a result of frontloading the court’s argument schedule with big cases. 

“I am confident they'll all be out by the end of June,” Kavanaugh said. “So I don't think anyone needs to worry about that. It's just a coincidence of which mix of cases were in October and November.” 

This is Kavanaugh’s first public appearance since a new documentary recounting sexual misconduct allegations against him debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. The film titled “Justice” details allegations from Kavanaugh’s Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez that first appeared in the New Yorker in 2018. Kavanaugh has denied these claims. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
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