Justice Kavanaugh on the Presidency, the Court and Taylor Swift

As the Supreme Court term enters its homestretch, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh shared reflections on presidential power, the court’s popularity and Taylor Swift at a judicial conference in Austin, Texas, on Friday.

He did not discuss the many major cases that will be decided by early July, including ones affecting former President Donald J. Trump, abortion and gun rights. But some of his comments were suggestive.

He talked about his years as staff secretary to President George W. Bush and the insights they had given him on the pressures of the office of the presidency.

“Being a judge is hard,” he said. “Being a Supreme Court justice is hard, some days. Neither is anything close to being president in terms of the stress, the difficulty, the pressure, day to day, no matter who is president.”

He added: “It’s a hard job. We revere the office of the president in this country, but I have great respect for it having seen it up close and for the people that are willing to serve.”

That was consistent with statements he made last month at arguments over whether Mr. Trump should be immune from prosecution on charges that he plotted to overthrow the 2020 election.

“This case has huge implications for the presidency, for the future of the presidency, for the future of the country,” he said last month, adding, “It’s going to cycle back and be used against the current president or the next president.”

Justice Kavanaugh, 59, a Trump appointee, made his comments as part of a public conversation with Chief Judge Priscilla Richman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in a crowded ballroom filled with lawyers and judges.

The justice seemed to allude to the negative public reaction to the 2022 decision overruling Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that had established a constitutional right to abortion. He did that by discussing decisions of the liberal court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren from 1953 to 1969.

“They were unpopular basically from start to finish,” Justice Kavanaugh said, rattling off rulings from that era including Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 school desegregation case, and ones on redistricting, school prayer, the rights of communists and criminal procedure. That last set of cases, including one requiring the police to give Miranda warnings, were, he said, “wildly unpopular.”

“I don’t think they had the kind of polling data back then they do now,” he said, but he suggested that the court’s current low approval ratings have historical echoes — and that public opinion can shift.

“A lot of those decisions were unpopular,” he said of the Warren court’s rulings, “and a lot of them are landmarks now that we accept as parts of the fabric of American constitutional law.”

He did not make the connection explicit, but the statements seemed to suggest that the 2022 abortion decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, may in time come to be more widely accepted.

He talked about changes in oral arguments at the court, which have grown very long, mentioning one last month that lasted about two and half hours, on ordinances in Oregon that ban homeless people from sleeping or camping in public spaces.

“It’s great for the judges,” he said of the extended arguments. “We learn more. We know more. We can explore more.”

But he added that observers can overread what goes on at the arguments. “Our oral argument questions are not our decision,” he said. “They might not even be our views.”

He used a sports analogy, as he often does. “Put in baseball terms,” he said of predictions based on the justices’ questions, “it’s like picking who is going to win the game in the fourth inning.”

He endorsed another analogy. “Chief Justice Roberts famously said judges are like umpires,” he said, calling the phrase “four of the most important words ever uttered.”

Justice Kavanaugh said he strives to write clear opinions but that unanimity can have a cost. “Clarity can sometimes be in tension with consensus and compromise,” he said.

Chief Judge Richman saved a few questions for a lighting round at the end.

She asked whether he plays basketball in the Supreme Court’s gym, known as “the highest court in the land.”

“I try,” he said. “I used to be able to play. Now I try to play.”

Asked whether he had attended a Taylor Swift concert, Justice Kavanaugh said that he and a daughter were “way ahead of the curve,” having gone more than a decade ago. When new albums drop, he said, “our house is on fire.”

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