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Constitutional Freedoms

Presumption of Innocence Urged Before Sexual Assault Hearing

Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn said a fair process allows accuser to present corroborating evidence and witnesses for cross-examination

Senate Republicans stressed the importance of the essential U.S. constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty on Tuesday ahead of a hearing to address sexual assault claims against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

“I think everyone in American understands there is a presumption of innocence,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters during a press conference. “That standard of fairness is applied to every American citizen in almost every situation.”

McConnell added that “we should go into these hearings with a presumption of innocence but hear the argument on the other side, testimony on the other side, so the members of the Senate can make a decision here on a very significant matter.”

Related: Feminists Attack Ashley Kavanaugh Even as They Declare, ‘Believe All Women’

Kavanaugh has faced a heated confirmation process since being nominated to the highest court on July 9. He has had his record scrutinized and his character attacked, all while political fights over his nomination intensify. He has more recently been facing allegations of sexual misconduct.

California psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford first accused the nominee of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers in high school. She came forward a few days after a letter she wrote about it was leaked to the public on September 12. Deborah Ramirez, a former classmate at Yale University, later accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her during a drunken dorm party in 1983.

“We owe everyone a fair process,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said during the press conference. “What does a fair process look like? A fair process does not look like assuming someone is guilty unless they can prove it. In this case, there is no way the accused can disprove the allegation because he says he wasn’t there. It didn’t happen, he said.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee was less than a week away from voting on whether to advance the nomination when the allegations upended the already contentious process. Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) responded by launching an investigation, canceling the committee vote and scheduling a hearing for Thursday.

“A fair process does not look like assuming someone is guilty unless they can prove it.”

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), became aware of the Ford allegations after receiving the letter detailing the allegations, dated July 30. Feinstein decided not to reveal the claims publicly or to the committee after Ford requested that the matter remain private.

The letter was leaked to the public without a name included within a week of the committee vote on whether to advance the Kavanaugh nomination to the full Senate. Kavanaugh was quick to deny the allegations when they first started spreading. Ford revealed herself to be the accuser days after the information was leaked on September 12.

“That is the American constitutional system, if you accuse someone of serious misconduct,” Cornyn said. “So I think that is important to keep in mind. And we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the way this letter was mishandled. And we must insist on a fair process for everyone involved.”

Cornyn added that a fair process also involves the accuser bringing forward cooperating evidence and witnesses. Ford alleged the incident occurred roughly 35 years ago — making evidence a difficult to obtain. She also hasn’t had much luck in getting witnesses to cooperate her story under oath.

Grassley has repeatedly said in response to the controversy that Ford deserves to be heard but has questioned the timing. Democrats could potentially improve their chances of stopping the nominee if they’re able to delay a final vote until after the midterm elections. There would also be less pressure on moderates in red states.

“I think the Democrats in the Senate have had one goal since the beginning of this process, and that is to sink Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, and we’re finding they’ll go to any length,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said. “And now, as everyone knows, we’re going to be having a hearing Thursday where his accuser, Dr. Ford, will have the chance for her side to be heard.”

Related: Fiery Kavanaugh Vows He ‘Will Not Be Intimidated into Withdrawing’

Grassley originally set the hearing for Monday, but it was pushed back after working out a deal with Ford. Her lawyers argued the hearing was happening too soon and that the FBI should investigate first. Grassley argued an outside investigation was unnecessary. They eventually worked out a deal last week after negotiating into the weekend.

Senate Democrats have echoed the calls for the nomination process to be stopped until a federal investigation can happen. Even before the sexual assault allegations became public, they called for delaying the process because of different issues, such as unfulfilled records requests and legal concerns related to President Donald Trump.

meet the author

Connor D. Wolf covers Congress and national politics and can be reached at [email protected].