President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh for the US Supreme Court on Monday, in what is thought to be a move aimed at entrenching its conservative control for years to come.
If confirmed, the appointment of the 53-year-old federal judge could likely affect decisions on abortion, gerrymandering, affirmative action, gay rights and capital punishment.
Kavanaugh’s position on strong executive power and his role in partisan political battles, including independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigations into President Bill Clinton and the high court’s decision on the 2000 presidential election recount, are set to dominate what’s expected to be a contentious confirmation hearing.
While some Democrats promised a stern effort to block Kavanaugh - who has served 12 years on the most influential US appeals court - Trump’s fellow Republicans control the Senate by a narrow margin and can ensure his appointment if they avoid defections from their ranks.
“In selecting Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, President Trump has put reproductive rights and freedoms and healthcare protections for millions of Americans on the judicial chopping block,” Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said.
Kavanaugh may replace long-serving conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement last month age 81.
The candidate, a well-known figure in Washington who has been involved in some of the biggest controversies of the past two decades, became Trump’s second lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest judicial body in his 18 months in office.
“Throughout legal circles he’s considered a judge’s judge, a true thought leader among his peers,” Trump, who named conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the court last year, told an applauding audience in the White House East Room.
“He’s a brilliant jurist with a clear and effective writing style, universally regarded as one of the finest and sharpest legal minds of our time. And just like Justice Gorsuch, he excelled as a legal clerk for Justice Kennedy,” Trump added, saying Kavanaugh “deserves a swift confirmation and robust bipartisan support”.
The appointment will not change the ideological breakdown of a court that already has a 5-4 conservative majority, but nevertheless could move the court to the right, Reuters suggested. Kennedy sometimes joined the liberal justices on key rulings on divisive social issues like abortion and gay rights - a practice his replacement may not duplicate.
Kavanaugh has amassed a solidly conservative judicial record since 2006 on the influential US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the same court where three current justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, previously served.
Like the 50-year-old Gorsuch, Kavanaugh potentially could serve on the high court for decades. Trump’s other leading candidates for the post were fellow federal appellate judges Thomas Hardiman, Raymond Kethledge and Amy Coney Barrett.
“My judicial philosophy is straightforward: a judge must be independent and must interpret the law, not make the law. A judge must interpret statutes as written. And a judge must interpret the Constitution as written, informed by history, and tradition and precedent,” Kavanaugh said during the ceremony in which he emphasised his family and his Roman Catholic faith.
Kavanaugh survived a protracted confirmation fight after Bush nominated him to the appeals court in 2003. Some Democrats accused him of excessive partisanship, and it took three years before the Senate eventually voted to confirm him.
Republicans hold a slim 51-49 Senate majority, and with ailing Senator John McCain battling cancer in his home state of Arizona they currently can muster only 50 votes. Senate rules still leave Democrats with scant options to block confirmation by themselves, though Trump must prevent Republican defections.