President Trump’s Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, a Republican establishment favorite who worked in the George W. Bush administration, has triggered reactions from Jewish groups ranging from furious to relieved.
Groups on the left spoke out against the pick, saying Kavanaugh’s record shows he would be a threat to reproductive rights and the separation of church and state, while the Agudath Israel of America Orthodox spoke favorably of his record on religious liberty.
Trump announced on Monday evening that he was nominating Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge in Washington, D.C., to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy upon his retirement at the end of July.
Within an hour of the announcement, the National Council of Jewish Women released a statement saying it was “incensed” by the choice and helped organize an opposition rally in front of the Supreme Court.
Other left-leaning groups, such as the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish organization with roots in the labor movement, denounced Trump’s pick. The Anti-Defamation League said it was wary that the nominee’s judicial record “does not reflect the demonstrated independence and commitment to fair treatment for all that is necessary to merit a seat on our nation’s highest court.”
Agudath Israel of America has not yet taken an official position on the nomination, but its Washington director, Rabbi Abba Cohen, called Kavanaugh “a very impressive candidate.”
Rabbi Cohen was happy about Kavanaugh’s rulings related to religious freedom, based on an initial overview of the judge’s record. Agudah and other Orthodox groups favor rulings that would exempt religious groups and individuals from generally applicable laws that clash with their beliefs.
“We’re gratified that he’s given due deference to religious liberty and that he has been supportive of a greater involvement of religious organizations and institutions in society,” Rabbi Cohen told JTA.
He cited Kavanaugh’s opinion in a case relating to contraceptive care exemptions for religious groups, Priests for Life v. HHS. The appeals court agreed that religious employers did not have to provide contraceptives, but had to file a form telling the government they were not doing so. Kavanaugh in his dissent argued that the filing requirement violated the plaintiffs’ religious freedom.
“We support that position, we think that’s giving proper deference to religious rights, and we don’t think that’s in any way a retreat from the rights of others, so that’s one area where we are pleased about,” Rabbi Cohen said.
The Orthodox Union told JTA that it was studying Kavanaugh’s record before deciding whether to take a position on his nomination.
During his time in private practice, Kavanaugh took on pro bono cases, including that of a Reconstructionist synagogue, Adat Shalom in Bethesda, Maryland, which was facing challenges from its neighbors in constructing a building. In 2000, a U.S. District Court sided with the synagogue, saying a permit issued to the congregation was consistent with the Establishment Clause. The synagogue confirmed to JTA that it was represented by Kavanaugh but did not return a request for further comment in time for publication.
Many on the left are concerned that a Trump appointee could join a conservative majority in taking away abortion rights and overturn Roe v. Wade, which Trump made a campaign promise. In 2006, Kavanaugh said he would respect Roe v. Wade, but Rabhan said that did not assuage her concern.
“Trump has said that overturning Roe v. Wade is a litmus test for anybody on his shortlist for the Supreme Court, and he has made anti-abortion [views] a litmus test for folks he’s nominated to lower courts,” said Jody Rabhan, who directs NCJW’s Washington operations.
Rabhan cited a 3027 case, Garza v. Hagan, in which Kavanaugh opposed a detained undocumented immigrant minor’s right to obtain an abortion.
Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, said the AJC has not taken a position on the nomination and was studying Kavanaugh’s record, specifically with regard to issues of immigration law, religious liberty, separation of church and state, and reproductive freedom.