Government, Public Health

Brett Kavanaugh's appointment to the Supreme Court

October 9, 2018

Time to vote and not to despair

Over the past couple weeks, I have had the privilege of talking with many people about the qualifications of Brett Kavanaugh to be Supreme Court justice. These included Republicans and Democrats, several people who knew and had practiced law, students, faculty, family members and others. No one said that this man is the right person to be elevated to the Supreme Court. There was little mention in these conversations of his scholarship, his handling of specific cases, character, ability to be impartial or deep understanding of the law. It was striking. This was a political nomination, and it played out that way. It’s done. Now, on both sides, all sides, we must move on.

Because I care deeply about equity and social justice, access to the means for all people to achieve their potential and a country that is for all, I am concerned about the future – deeply. I am especially worried about the message the president sent to sexual assault survivors when he mocked Dr. Ford, and then when he described the allegations against Kavanaugh as a Democratic party hoax.

“It was all made up, it was fabricated, and it’s a disgrace,” he said.

Our students and others were shocked by the events of the last couple weeks – as though the earth had shifted, and the ground feels unstable underneath. I am old enough to hope that the shifting will draw attention and action, but old enough also to know that it may not happen as quickly as many would like.

Yet, I also have a strong belief in the resilience of this country and our history of rebalancing when things go terribly wrong. Voting has never been more important than it is today. It is time to act in spite of despair and to vote, take stands, advocate, join with likeminded people and take other nonviolent means of standing up and standing for.

What are the appropriate qualifications for a justice?

Then-Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy gave an impressive talk at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches in 2010. He provided clear advice about the types of men and women who should be considered for these lifetime appointments—those with certain qualities that are more moral than intellectual. I assume he recognized that there are many smart people, but not all have the right character.

In describing the workings of the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy said:

When we issue the opinion in, say, an unpopular case, we draw down on a capital of trust and make a withdrawal on the trust of the public in our institution. It is our job always to replenish that trust. By adhering to our judicial oath but adhering to the principles of neutrality and independence and fairness and quiet discussion and decency and courtesy and scholarship.

 A bit later, during the Q&A period after his remarks, Kennedy responded to a question about the confirmation process for Supreme Court justices by saying, in part,

 What you should ask is whether the judge has the temperament, the commitment, the character, the learning to assume those responsibilities.

With regard to the confirmation process, he also said,

One of the things at stake is the integrity and the independence and the stature of our court.

What are Justice Kennedy’s take-aways regarding qualities we should seek in a Supreme Court justice, besides, one assumes, deep knowledge of the law?

  • Trust of the public
  • Principles of neutrality and independence
  • Fairness and quiet discussion
  • Decency, courtesy and scholarship
  • Temperament
  • Commitment
  • Character
  • Learning

As I think about it, we should demand these qualities in every leader. Fairness, decency, character, commitment and the other traits are what we should want in corporate leaders, college presidents, heads of foundations and others. Part of the current crisis in our country is the huge gap between what we know the training, temperament and behavior of a leader should be and the qualities we see in many current leaders. Honesty, integrity, congruity between our public and private actions, advocating for those who have less, promoting equity and fairness, not looking for the easy way out, working hard, being role models, not being too quick to judge, holding our own behavior and performance to the highest standards and putting ourselves in others’ shoes  are some of the values with which I was raised and which I try to maintain in my role as dean.

A reader could wonder, and I do myself sometimes, why a public health school dean has the audacity to comment on something so far out of her wheelhouse. Here’s why: this justice may have a deciding vote on issues that are directly relevant to the public’s health – abortion, immigration, environmental regulations, the Affordable Care Act. Kavanaugh could help to roll back legislation and interpretations of legislation that have made this country fairer and more equitable.

Finally, everywhere I go, I hear angst, anger, pain and surprise about what happened last week. I especially empathize with our students. Many of them grew up with a president they admired, in a culture in which it is understood that few people make it entirely on their own. Now, as public health students, they also are part of a culture that values health care as a human right and supportive partnerships with government. We come back to where we started: It’s so important to use our voices and to vote.

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.