Brett Kavanaugh rose beyond the rancor of his confirmation battle on his first day as a Supreme Court justice on Oct. 9, asking several questions during oral arguments alongside a collegial group of fellow justices.
Seated on the right end of the mahogany bench, a place reserved for new justices, Kavanaugh asked several questions during two hours of oral arguments on federal sentencing guidelines for repeat offenders.
Kavanaugh’s wife watched the lively session as did his daughters, who were granted a day off from school to see their father’s first day on the nation’s top court.
President Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh to fill the Supreme Court seat of retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, who also attended the new justice’s first day on the bench.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation was thrown in disarray by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who withheld an unsubstantiated accusation against Kavanaugh until after his confirmation hearings were concluded. During the swearing-in ceremony at the White House on Oct. 8, Trump apologized to Kavanaugh and his family “for the terrible pain and suffering you have been forced to endure.”
“Those who step forward to serve our country deserve a fair and dignified evaluation, not a campaign of political and personal destruction based on lies and deception,” Trump said. “What happened to the Kavanaugh family violates every notion of fairness, decency, and due process.”
Chief Justice John Roberts welcomed Kavanaugh to the court before the oral arguments.
“We wish you a long and happy career in our common calling,” Roberts said.
With Kavanaugh on the bench, the court has five conservatives and four liberals. Kennedy, considered a conservative, was perceived as a swing vote on the court after siding with liberals on several crucial cases. Kavanaugh’s lifetime tenure could stretch for decades, signifying a seismic shift on the court, which has been on the fence, ideologically, for decades.
The Senate voted to confirm Kavanaugh in a 50–48 vote on Oct. 6, concluding a bitter confirmation battle with exactly one month left before the midterm election on Nov. 6. The victory is a boon for Republicans who are looking to hold on to majorities in the house and Senate.
Kavanaugh is Trump’s second appointee to the Supreme Court. Last year, the Senate confirmed Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Kavanaugh posed questions to lawyers in both cases before the court, his first one coming about 20 minutes into the arguments.
At one point, Kavanaugh had a lighthearted exchange with liberal Justice Elena Kagan, seated next to him. At another point, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared to pinch Gorsuch, sitting next to her, to playfully illustrate her point about what constitutes a violent act. Gorsuch responded with a faux grimace of pain.
Tuesday’s cases involved the 1984 Armed Career Criminal Act, a “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” criminal sentencing law that boosts prison sentences for people who are convicted of crimes involving guns if they have previously been convicted of certain other crimes.
The cases challenge the types of crimes that qualify as violent felonies under that law and can lead to 15-year mandatory minimum sentences. The cases involved a Florida robbery and burglaries in Tennessee and Arkansas.
Based on Tuesday’s arguments, defendants could win in both cases, with liberal justices likely to be joined by some conservatives in the majority.
Kavanaugh moved to the Supreme Court after spending 12 years as a judge on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, building a conservative judicial record.
Before hearing arguments on Oct. 9, the justices turned aside appeals of a 2017 ruling authored by Kavanaugh on the lower court that struck down a 2015 environmental rule imposed under Democratic former President Barack Obama.
The justices privately made the decision not to hear the appeals by an environmental group and companies that supported the regulation before Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
Reuters contributed to this report