The announcement that Brett Kavanaugh will participate in a public swearing in to the Supreme Court at the White House Monday evening stirred speculation that the newest justice might use the nationally televised ceremony to address the nation about the controversy that clouded his nomination.
If Kavanaugh elaborates on his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding accusations of sexual against Christine Blasey Ford while in high school, he would be following in the path of an earlier justice who took to national radio when his first days on the bench were filled with controversy.
On Aug. 11, 1937, Hugo Black, Democratic senator from Alabama and strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, became FDR’s first nominee to the Supreme Court.
Throughout hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, there were rumors that Black had been a member of the notoriously anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, and anti-black Ku Klux Klan. The New York Times had reported years before that Black, in his first race for the Senate in 1926, had the support of the KKK.
But at a time when nominees to the Supreme Court did not testify before the committee scrutinizing their nomination, Black was never directly asked about his Klan association.
Much as Kavanaugh was accused of obfuscating questions about his drinking and behavior in college, the Alabamian was increasingly criticized for never directly answering whether he belonged to the Klan.
By a vote of 13-4, the Judiciary Committee reported Black’s nomination favorably. Eight days after he was nominated, following six hours of debate, the Senate confirmed Black by a vote of 63-16. Like Kavanaugh, he was immediately sworn to office.
“JUSTICE BLACK REVEALED AS KU KLUX KLANSMAN,’ blared the headline of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The story by Ray Sprigle revealed that Black had been a member of the Robert E. Lee Klan Number One in Birmingham from September 1923 to July 1925. His handwritten resignation was reproduced on Page One of the Post-Gazette.
Among other things, the report revealed, Black had handled the successful legal defense of E.R. Stephenson, a barber and Birmingham Methodist preacher, who in 1921 was accused of shooting Father James Coyle shortly after the Catholic priest had married Stephenson’s daughter to a Puerto Rican.
Sprigle, who would win a Pulitzer Prize for his expose, also learned that while the justice had resigned from the Klan in 1925, he was subsequently backed by the organization in his winning U.S. Senate race a year later and given a “grand passport” declaring the Klan’s “sacred and unfailing bond” with him.
Calls for Black’s resignation appeared in numerous editorials, with Newsweek admonishing that the new justice must accept responsibility for his silence during the Senate debate.
Kansas publisher William Allen White said that FDR “dishonored” the high court by naming Black. Several embarrassed senators said they would have never voted for his confirmation. FDR categorically told a news conference he had no advance knowledge of his nominee’s background in the Klan.
On Oct. 1, Justice Black made a stunning and unprecedented decision to address the growing controversy on national radio, which drew an estimated 50 million American listeners — more than any recent broadcast at the time aside from King Edward VIII’s abdication of the British throne in 1936.
Speaking from a friend’s home, Black told the nation: “I did join the Klan,” but quickly underscored that “I later resigned. I never rejoined…. [M]y record as a senator refutes every charge of racial or religious intolerance.”
For good measure, Black threw in that “some of my best and most intimate friends are Catholics and Jews.” Of the Klan controversy, he proclaimed “my discussion of the matter is closed.”
Newspaper editorials continued their denunciation of Black, with the New York Post mockingly observing “one of our best liberal friends was a Klansman but we don’t think he should be on the Court.” But people in general liked the justice’s plain language and folksy accent on the air.
Three days after his speech, Black was welcomed to the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (whose nomination Sen. Black had opposed). There were two petitions calling for Black to be barred from the court on grounds raised in the Senate, both of which were ignored by the chief justice.
In his 34 years on the high court, Hugo Black would take a strongly pro-civil rights stance. He supported ending school segregation. But he also raised old questions when he wrote the majority ruling in decisions upholding FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II or banning school prayer.
Unlike Hugo Black, Brett Kavanaugh will take his oath publicly on Monday, amid pomp and fanfare. He might, however, be advised to say a few words about the recent controversy — just as Black did.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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