As Donald Trump moves to finalize his Supreme Court pick, Judge Raymond Kethledge is getting a behind-the-scenes push portraying him as the consensus choice of conservatives.
Former aides and supporters of Kethledge, a Michigan resident who moves outside Washington circles and is considered the least known of the leading contenders, are quietly circulating positive information about the judge’s personal life, political profile and reassuring record on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. The tacit message: If Brett Kavanaugh is a well-connected D.C. insider, and Amy Barrett is a grass-roots favorite but lacks experience, Kethledge is a down-to-earth Michigander who checks all the boxes for conservatives.
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“Unlike many people, he’s not a D.C. insider,” said Kethledge pal Christopher Yoo, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor. Kethledge and Yoo shared an office when they clerked for retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy from 1997 to 1998. “He doesn’t belong to the kind of circles of power that other former clerks are often drawn to. What’s quite telling is his love of Michigan, his love of outdoors. … One of the highest compliments he can give about a person is they aren’t afraid to drink beer straight out of the bottle.”
Confidants also are sharing tidbits from what they describe as his encouraging early interactions with Trump, who is prioritizing personal chemistry and political magnetism along with a potential nominee’s legal record.
“They just really hit it off,” said one Republican close to the White House.
The White House declined comment.
While Kavanaugh’s boosters began a public campaign on his behalf almost immediately after Kennedy announced his retirement last week and op-eds advocating his selection have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to The Hill, Kethledge’s supporters have been more low key, quietly nudging and supplying journalists and conservative bloggers with positive information but rarely — until recently — doing the cheerleading themselves.
Kethledge lacks Kavanaugh’s vast D.C. network and does not excite grass-roots conservatives in the same way as Barrett — a Roman Catholic, Notre Dame law professor and mother of seven who is electrifying the anti-abortion ranks. His supporters also worry that he lacks a strong advocate inside the White House: White House counsel Don McGahn is firmly supportive of Kavanaugh, while Barrett has become a hero to Trump’s evangelical base. And they’ve shared concerns about Kethledge’s lack of an Ivy League law degree, a preference of the president’s.
But Barrett’s time on the bench has been short, those close to the process note, while Kavanaugh’s ties to the George W. Bush administration along with a 2011 ruling that critics argue paved the way for the Supreme Court to legalize Obamacare have become central to the opposition research file made to scuttle his standing.
Kavanaugh’s work for former independent counsel Ken Starr, which vaulted him onto the national stage, has also become a vetting problem for him inside the White House, according to two sources familiar with the situation. White House advisers are concerned that, as a lead author of the Starr Report, Kavanaugh would provide an opening for Democrats to try to back him into a corner with arguments he wielded against former President Bill Clinton that could at some point apply to Trump.
Part of the Starr Report accused Clinton of obstructing justice for allegedly suggesting to his secretary, Betty Currie, that he and Monica Lewinsky “were never really alone” and that Currie was present at all their meetings. Another section of Starr’s compendium listed one of Clinton’s public statements denying a sexual relationship with Lewinsky as part of a violation of his constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws.
Some legal observers say Trump’s interactions with former FBI director James Comey and Trump’s involvement in a statement obscuring the initial purpose of a Trump Tower meeting with Russians during the campaign could be seen as similar to conduct the Starr report cast as grounds for impeachment.
While the parallels are open to debate, they seem close enough to give Democrats fodder to divert at least a portion of a potential Kavanaugh confirmation hearing to a discussion of Trump’s alleged misdeeds. There could be documents for Democrats to dig into as well. A National Archives listing of Starr’s files shows at least eight boxes of records belonging to Kavanaugh, as well as a smattering of his memos in the files of other lawyers on the team.
One Trump adviser downplayed the concerns. “There’s no overlap between the relevant counts of Clinton’s impeachment and what is currently being alleged against President Trump,” said the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s certainly not an issue in the vetting process.”
Yet the Kethledge campaign has picked up steam in recent days. As the president homed in on the three favorites, a former Kethledge clerk from the firm of which the judge was a founding partner authored a piece for National Review suggesting he takes the same approach as the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Trump’s replacement for him, Neil Gorsuch — praise as high as conservatives can give to a possible nominee.
Roger Meyers, in the piece focused on Kethledge’s immigration record, described him as a committed originalist and textualist, meaning he applies the law as it’s written and shows no favoritism to either side in any case.
“Judge Kethledge has also criticized judicial activism, which is when judges insert their own policy views into their decisions rather than applying our laws and Constitution as they were written and understood at the time they were enacted,” Meyers added.
As Kethledge’s stock rises, top Democrats are turning their attention to him.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in a series of tweets Thursday afternoon, previewed the liberal critique of his record by accusing the judge of opposing women’s reproductive freedom. “Anti-choice activists have praised his work as Judiciary Committee counsel for Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI) when Sen. Abraham was pushing for a federal abortion ban,” Schumer wrote.
He charged that Kethledge repeatedly sided against workers in cases dealing with the right to organize, fair wages, age discrimination and sexual harassment, and noted he wrote a concurring opinion in a decision that would have prevented as many as 200,000 otherwise eligible Ohio voters from casting ballots.
Republicans close to the selection process stressed that Trump could still go in another direction, skipping over Kethledge, Kavanaugh and Barrett and choosing someone else from his largely pre-vetted list of 25 potential court nominees.
But Kethledge backers believe his biggest selling point over the short term may come from what is expected to be a bruising confirmation fight. Hugh Hewitt, one of the Michigan judge’s biggest supporters, said Kethledge brings political upside to the process that the other high court contenders cannot. Writing in The Washington Post, Hewitt contended that red-state senators up for reelection would have a difficult time not confirming him, mentioning Kethledge’s love of hunting and flyfishing.
“Imagine Sen. Jon Tester or Sen. Heidi Heitkamp explaining to their voters this fall why they voted against an honest-to-God outdoorsman,” Hewitt wrote.
He also pointed to his character and the book he co-authored on leadership.
Others suggest the Summit, N.J.-born Kethledge, who moved to Michigan before his junior year of high school and still lives in Ann Arbor with his family, has a story that will appeal to a president who revels in reciting relatable biographies.
Kethledge met his wife, Jessica, when they were only 13 years old. The couple have two children — Ray, 20, a rising junior in college, and Ella, 17, a rising senior in high school — and will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary this year, a friend said.
Yoo, who has visited with the family in Michigan several times, focused on Kethledge returning home to Michigan after he worked for Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) from 1995 to 1997, and clerked for Kennedy from 1997 to 1998, rather than join a lucrative law firm in D.C.
The judge instead co-founded the law firm of Bush, Seyferth & Kethledge, which continues as Bush, Seyferth & Paige.
Kethledge, who could not be reached for comment, once gave a speech at his alma mater, the University of Michigan Law School, which includes a somewhat unflattering comparison of himself to Bill Murray’s character in “Caddyshack.”
“What’s quite different about him is he is a citizen of middle America,” Yoo said, adding that Kethledge does some of his best writing from a small cabin in northern Michigan. “He has a real down-to-earth quality about him.”