WASHINGTON — After days of frenzied lobbying and speculation, President Donald Trump decided on federal appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh for his second nominee to the Supreme Court, setting up a ferocious confirmation battle with Democrats as he seeks to shift the nation’s highest court further to the right.
Trump chose Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.
With customary fanfare, Trump planned to unveil his choice on prime-time TV. His final options were all young federal judges who could help remake the court for decades to come with precedent-shattering rulings on issues such as abortion, guns and health care.
Top contenders had included federal appeals judges Raymond Kethledge, Amy Coney Barrett and Thomas Hardiman, as well as Kavanaugh, who is currently a federal appellate judge in the District of Columbia.
Relishing the guessing game beyond the White House gates, Trump had little to say about his choice before the announcement.
Some conservatives have expressed concerns about Kavanaugh — a longtime judge and a former clerk for Kennedy — questioning his commitment to social issues like abortion and noting his time serving under President George W. Bush as evidence he is a more establishment choice. But his supporters have cited his experience and wide range of legal opinions.
Ahead of his announcement, Trump tweeted about the stakes: “I have long heard that the most important decision a U.S. President can make is the selection of a Supreme Court Justice — Will be announced tonight at 9:00 P.M.”
With Democrats determined to vigorously oppose Trump’s choice, the Senate confirmation battle is expected to dominate the months leading up to November’s midterm elections. Senate Republicans hold only a 51-49 majority, leaving them hardly any margin if Democrats hold the line. Democratic senators running for re-election in states Trump carried in 2016 will face pressure to back his nominee.
Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said he was bracing for a tough confirmation battle as Democrats focus on abortion. Kennedy, a member of the Judiciary Committee, which will get the first chance to question the nominee, predicted a “rough, tough, down in the dirt, ear-pulling, nose-biting fight.”
Trump’s success in confirming conservative judges, as well as a Supreme Court justice, has cheered Republicans amid concerns about his limited policy achievements and chaotic management style. Of the court’s liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 and Stephen Breyer turns 80 next month, so Trump may well get another opportunity to cement conservative dominance of the court for years to come.
Kavanaugh is likely to be more conservative than Justice Kennedy on a range of social issues. At the top of that list is abortion. A more conservative majority could be more willing to uphold state restrictions on abortion, if not overturn the 45-year-old landmark Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman’s constitutional right.
Kennedy’s replacement also could be more willing to allow states to carry out executions and could support undoing earlier court holdings in the areas of racial discrimination in housing and the workplace. Kennedy provided a decisive vote in 2015 on an important fair housing case.
While the president has been pondering his choice, his aides have been preparing for what is expected to be a tough confirmation fight. The White House said Monday that former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl would guide Trump’s nominee through the grueling Senate process.