On Oct. 8, Brett Kavanaugh was ceremonially sworn in as a Supreme Court judge. His appointment was not without controversy, and on Tuesday, Oct. 2, the students in the Tuesday/Thursday middle school pathways class at Park View Middle School, “The Law and You” welcomed a guest speaker to class.
Dr. John Dietrich, professor of Political Science and chair of the History and Social Science department at Bryant University, spoke to the students about the current situation at the time, involving Supreme Court judge nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Dietrich is also the parent of one current PVMS student, as well as one who has gone through the school already.
He spoke to the students first about his educational path that led him to becoming interested in political science.
“I grew up in Providence and went to the public schools there. I went on to the University of Pennsylvania and while I was there I thought I wanted to be a scientist,” he said. “I loved biology in high school, but in college that changed when I went to my first political science. I liked learning about people and countries and I liked seeing the big picture, how things all fit together like a puzzle. I found that with science, the picture got smaller and smaller, the further on you went.”
Dietrich went on to get his masters degree and then his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Since 2001 he’s been teaching both American Foreign Policy and International Politics at Bryant University.
His goal for his speaking session at PVMS was to help the students understand the current situation taking place in regards to Kavanaugh, as well as to give them general information about the Supreme Court and the process that takes place with a judicial nomination under more normal circumstances.
“This current situation that you’re seeing in the news about the Supreme Court is not what’s normal,” Dietrich told the students. “To understand this one event though, you can’t just start at this event. You need background information for it to make sense.”
He used a basketball analogy, telling the students that when learning the game in their physical education classes, they do not begin by starting to play the game without learning the rules, both the written and the unwritten “best practices.”
“The Constitution provides the permanent rules for the Supreme Court and the only way to change them is to go through the amendment process,” he said. “At the national level the House and the Senate make the laws and the president signs them into law, and the laws get interpreted by the courts to decide of the rules are reasonable. The rules haven’t changed, but recently it’s been like a basketball game with people running in all different directions and it’s hard to predict because no one is doing what they usually do.”
He explained to the students that the Constitution is relatively short, but that it does state that there should be a Supreme Court, and it dictates that a President gets to make a recommendation for an appointment to a judge’s seat, as he somewhat represents the people, and the Senators get to make the decision as to whether or not that person is a good choice.
“You want that person to be qualified, someone who has a legal background,” he said. “This appointment is for life, and has no end date. The person becomes a judge until they die or until they decide that they’ve had enough and resign. You can impeach a Supreme Court judge, but in the history of the United States that has never happened. Having a lifetime appointment gives a judge experience and provides stability for the court.”
The Constitution, however, does not state how many judges should be on the Supreme Court.
“At first, there were only five judges on the Supreme Court, and then they decided there should be seven,” he said. “They try to use odd numbers so that they will not often have a tie. At one point they also had ten, but they had too many ties and they decided to make it a law after the Civil War to have nine.”
He noted that a Supreme Court vote does not have to be unanimous, but that the majority rules because all of the judges are interpreting the law and he gave examples related to free speech that showed how a law can be interpreted differently by different people, leading to a vote that is not unanimous.
Dietrich told the students that currently in the Supreme Court, four of the remaining judges are strong Republicans while four are strong Democrats. The final seat would give a majority rule to one side or the other.
“President [Donald] Trump is thinking that he has to get someone in there that thinks like he does so that he gets a five-four win all the time,” Dietrich explained. “Some of the judges in there are in their 50s and could be there for another 30 years. Brett Kavanaugh has already been a judge for ten years one level down from the Supreme Court and he already has experience. They already know how he will decide on things because they have ten years of rulings to look at.”
He discussed the fact that accusations by Dr. Christine Ford and other two women who had come forward had changed the course of the proceedings, and that because the Supreme Court reopens on Oct. 1 and the midterm elections take place on Nov. 6, the Senate was in a hurry to push his appointment through.
“It’s not so much about him going to jail over the allegations,” he said. “It’s more about do you trust him or has he been lying about his drinking. It’s also important to know that it isn’t always this way. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was being appointed, it was 97-3 voting yes in the Senate, so there have not always been these votes along party lines. Normally it’s much more of a calm process.”
When asked whether or not Dietrich thought that the further investigation of Kavanaugh would change the outcome at all, he used an analogy of ice cream in order to relate it to something the students could better understand.
“Suppose you’re someone who always has chocolate ice cream, and someone says that you can have vanilla, and you might want to consider vanilla, at the end of the day, if you are someone who always chooses chocolate, you’re more than likely still going to choose to have the chocolate over the vanilla,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure on them. Once he is in, to impeach a Supreme Court judge you need more than a majority vote, you need 67 people and that’s never going to happen.”
Dietrich also noted that oftentimes at this point, many people might have stepped aside rather than to go through further controversy.
“Brett Kavanaugh is fighting it out,” he said. “At this point, it’s more about what he said while under oath about what he did, and did he lie under under oath.”