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Commentary Law and Policy

A Year Later, A New Allegation Against Kavanaugh. Will It Change Anything?

Jessica Mason Pieklo

History teaches that powerful men, like Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who are credibly accused of abusing women, don’t face public repercussions. So I doubt anything will come up in this latest claim.

The New York Times reported a new allegation over the weekend that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted another student while attending Yale University in the 1980s. Journalists Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly reported the claim alongside further corroboration of Deborah Ramirez’ allegations, which came to light a year ago during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.

The new reporting shook the internet, launching fresh calls for investigations into Kavanaugh’s nomination and his impeachment, and reigniting the collective rage surrounding his ascent to the Court. I want to believe this renewed energy will produce change. I’m also exhausted from the pain and outrage surrounding his nomination and confirmation. I’m concerned about the toll weaponizing survivors’ pain has on the women who dropped everything to share their stories, bear their pain publicly, only to be told by senators like Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake, and Susan Collins that their experiences mattered little in the face of potentially retaining political power for a generation. I’m left wondering what has changed to inspire Democrats to engage in the kind of sustained, political action necessary to produce Kavanaugh’s resignation or impeachment that they couldn’t muster a year ago to stop his nomination in the first place.

But I don’t know that anything has.

The new claim reported in the Times largely mirrors Ramirez’ allegations. Ramirez claims that while at a dorm party at Yale, a drunk Kavanaugh thrust his penis at her. Pogrebin and Kelly write that a classmate of Kavanaugh’s described a different dorm party where Kavanaugh’s pants were down and “friends pushed his penis into the hand of a female student.” They also reported that others with evidence corroborating Ramirez’s story had reached out to investigators, but they were ignored.

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The reporting confirmed what we already know about alleged perpetrators of abuse, who use sex to assert and abuse their power. We learned there is another Kavanaugh accuser. We learned that had law enforcement engaged in a meaningful investigation of any of the allegations against Kavanaugh following his confirmation hearings and before the Senate vote, they would have discovered a trove of evidence supporting both the claims against Kavanaugh and claims that he lied under oath. That kind of information could have been sufficient pressure on Sen. Collins to vote no on Kavanaugh and doom his confirmation.

And we learned that despite the high-profile nature of the story of another Supreme Court nominee facing credible allegations of sexual misconduct, the claims against Kavanaugh were given the same cursory treatment by law enforcement as countless other credible allegations of sexual assault.

It’s been a year since Christine Blasey Ford credibly accused then-nominee Kavanaugh of sexual assault while the two were in high school, sparking the largest single-day protest against a Supreme Court nominee in U.S. history. And it’s been a year since Kavanaugh angrily denied every word of Ford’s account, telling the country under oath that the “Devils Triangle” was a drinking game and not slang for the sexual three-way Ford alluded to in her assault allegations. As I wrote when the allegations against Kavanaugh first came to light, history teaches that powerful men like Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Clarence Thomas, who are credibly accused of abusing women, don’t face public repercussions. So I doubt anything will come up in this latest claim.

This is especially concerning given that in a few short weeks, Kavanaugh, Thomas, and the rest of the Roberts Court will hear oral arguments in two of the most important sex-discrimination cases in Supreme Court history. In them, the Trump administration argues that employers should be able to adopt and enforce workplace policies that reaffirm antiquated gender roles and stereotypes.

Although it may seem like a leap to go from drunkenly thrusting a penis at a woman at a college party to mandating women wear skirts to work, it’s really not. Both examples illustrate how traditional heterosexuality serves as a gatekeeping function to pipelines of power. Employers have passed over women for promotions if they were too masculine or “aggressive,” and men if they were insufficiently “macho.” Kavanaugh accuser Deborah Ramirez describes in the New York Times the humiliating effect his alleged actions had on her. They made her feel unwelcome and served to remind her that it was Kavanaugh who held the social power in their interaction, just as Ford described in her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.  

At the Supreme Court next month, there will undoubtedly be assault survivors attending those sex discrimination cases. There will be people who have experienced sexual harassment on the job, in school, and in their communities. They will hear lawyers argue that the kind of culture that produced such abuse is one the law should protect. And they will witness two men sitting on the Court who have benefitted from their own abuses of power try to push the law to do the same. 

A decision on the cases from the Court isn’t expected until next summer. Perhaps in that time, Democrats will do what law enforcement failed to do and engage in a meaningful investigation into the claims against Kavanaugh. Maybe Chief Justice John Roberts will grasp the severe legitimacy crisis Kavanaugh’s appointment has created for the Court—how it is a rubber stamp for the worst of the Trump administration’s impulses—and force Kavanaugh’s resignation. Or, as has been so often the case, public attention and outrage will turn elsewhere and women will again be left, as Jessica Valenti describes, carrying the weight of another man who got away with it.

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