As the politically and emotionally hypercharged Senate proceedings over the fate of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh came to a head on Thursday and Friday, lawyers across the country stopped what they were doing and watched along with everyone else.
The hearings sparked strong reactions from partners at major law firms, and a stream of commentary from the legal twittersphere. One prominent M&A partner at a Wall Street firm deleted his Twitter account after lashing out at the White House press secretary, later apologizing.
Meanwhile, seasoned litigators, naturally inclined to analyze witness credibility, closely observed Kavanaugh and his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, with some finding striking differences.
For many attorneys, it was not a very productive end of the week. “When you walked around the office, you heard echoes of testimony coming from everyone’s computers. Virtually everyone was absorbed in it,” said Jacob Buchdahl, a partner at Susman Godfrey. “The legal world was riveted.”
One law firm leader said “all partners and associates were standing” in front of the television, noting that the billable hours lost in the day were likely in the “billions of dollars.”
Marjorie Peerce, a partner at Ballard Spahr, said the the past few days recalled both Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’ nomination and the O.J. Simpson murder trial, with attorneys in her office and elsewhere “all glued to the TV” regardless of their ideology or practice specialty.
For litigators in particular, the scene was a study in witness preparation and examination. “As trial lawyers, we are naturally inclined to be fascinated by witness testimony, and witness preparation and witness demeanor,” Buchdahl said.
“I thought Professor Ford was one of the best witnesses I’ve seen,” said Robin Cohen, a McKool Smith principal. “I’ve done a lot of trials, and I was taken aback by how genuine, how likable and how honest she was.” Cohen said she also found Ford’s memory of the event compelling, as she noticed details of the house and testified about the laughter of the teenagers during the alleged sexual assault 36 years ago.
Cohen, speaking as a toughened litigator who has tried many cases, said it was emotional at times to hear Ford’s testimony.
Buchdahl, the Susman partner, said it “was a tale of two witnesses.”
“We saw an enormous contrast between a witness who was a model of exactly how you want a witness to behave—she did everything you would want a witness to do, she was courteous, she was respectful, she was authentic, she did not change her style in testimony, depending on who was asking her questions,” Buchdahl said, adding Kavanaugh became hostile at times and at one point fired back some questions.
“While Dr. Blasey Ford was clearly trying to persuade the Judiciary Committee, the people sitting in front of her, it really seemed like Judge Kavanaugh’s audience was President Trump,” he said.
Some attorneys also remarked on the unusual format of Thursday’s proceedings. In a courtroom, “You don’t have five-minute increments, you don’t have questions that turn into speeches,” Peerce said, “and in a courtroom, you’re supposed to have a neutral judge. You don’t have a chairperson whose mind is already made up to arbitrate questions.”
Cohen said Republicans would have been better served hiring a defense counsel, as opposed to a prosecutor, who could have done a better job cross-examining the witnesses. Democratic senators, she said, could have done a better job questioning Kavanaugh with tailored questions.
Litigator Mark Zauderer, a partner at Ganfer Shore Leeds & Zauderer, said lawyers seem to be engaging in the same debate as others in the country. “Do you view this through the prism of due process or a job interview? Who has the burden?” Zauderer said. “Other lawyers I speak with on both sides of the issue are most concerned about what this public spectacle is doing for the credibility of the Supreme Court itself.”
For some observers, emotions ran particularly high.
Frank Aquila, a Sullivan & Cromwell M&A partner, deleted his Twitter account and apologized after tweeting to the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders that she should “Rot in Hell You B!tch,” after Sanders praised Sen. Lindsey Graham’s defense of Kavanaugh.
Meanwhile, Helgi Walker, a former colleague of Kavanaugh in the White House counsel’s office and a partner and practice leader at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, told PBS’ NewsHour, after seeing Kavanaugh testify, “This was the behavior of somebody who is innocent.”
“Yes, people react strongly, and I think emotionally. And I cried, my husband cried because we know Judge Kavanaugh, and we know what he’s been through,” Walker said. “And we also know that he is innocent of these charges.”