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Unfinished Business

Ananya Kumar-Banerjee ’21 spoke out against Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 the moment he was nominated to the Supreme Court. “How do we live in a world that is fundamentally unjust and unkind to us?” Kumar-Banerjee asked in an interview with The Politic. “If something structural is bothering you, then you have to do something about it—you don’t have an option.” 

One year ago, Kumar-Banerjee was among a group of students who took part in the undergraduate student-led rally that condemned Kavanaugh’s confirmation. 

Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court in July 2018 by President Donald Trump. Shortly thereafter, Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University, wrote a confidential letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein accusing Justice Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, recounting the evening of her alleged assault over three decades ago, when both Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford attended high school in suburban Maryland.

By mid-September, Blasey Ford saw the media villainize her for her letter and decided to step forward. She spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27, 2018 in detail about the night of her alleged assault and how it has continued to weigh on her for over 30 years: “I was underneath one of them, while the two laughed. Two friends having a really good time with one another.” 

On September 23, 2018, The New Yorker released an article recounting a new allegation against Justice Kavanaugh: Deborah Ramirez, a former classmate of Kavanaugh’s in college, claimed that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party in freshman dorm building Lawrance Hall.

By a vote of 50 to 48 on October 6, 2018, the Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

***

“As it happens, I was in Sterling Library,” Robin Pogrebin ’87 recounted. A New York Times reporter of 26 years, Pogrebin is also a Yale mom and was waiting to attend her daughter’s improv performance during Family Weekend 2018. “I had my computer and watched the live streaming of the vote in the Senate, where Vice President Mike Pence pounded the gavel and called the vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation.”

Pogrebin’s involvement in the coverage of Kavanaugh’s confirmation happened almost by accident. A team had formed to follow the reporting, and Pogrebin, a member of Kavanaugh’s class and neighbor in his freshman dorm at Yale, contributed contacts as well as her Class of 1987 yearbook. Then, a member from the team covering Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings said, “It seems that we should really have you on this.”

Pogrebin’s yearbook and collegial connection to Kavanaugh proved to be critical for the Times’s coverage. In an interview with Yale alum and North Carolina State University professor Chad Ludington, Pogrebin gained insight into Kavanaugh’s character that corroborated both Blasey Ford’s and Ramirez’s accusations; Ludington remembers Kavanaugh “staggering from alcohol consumption” while an undergraduate at Yale. 

But, as decades-old memories often are, the story was never straightforward. As the nomination process wore on, a series of Kavanaugh’s classmates from Yale College and Yale Law School called testimony like Ludington’s into question. 

Kenneth Christmas LAW ’91 testified in favor of Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court on September 7, 2018. Christmas crystallized his view of Kavanaugh’s character in an interview with The Politic: “Brett is a close, honest, loyal friend…. Although we differ politically, he is one of the most honest, upright people I’ve ever known.” 

Christmas made it clear that he doesn’t share Justice Kavanaugh’s views. “He is a constitutional originalist and strict interpretationist,” Christmas noted. “He’s been consistent with that over time.… I hope there will be a different person in the White House who looks to strengthen what we have in common rather than exacerbate our differences,” Christmas said. “Right now, I think it’s more polarized than it’s ever been.”

Another one of Kavanaugh’s classmates and fellow Stilesian, who chose to remain anonymous, still felt that—despite last year’s outcry from current Yale students—Kavanaugh was the right choice for the bench. In an email correspondence with The Politic, they wrote that “if you asked 100 Yalies who knew Brett, I would be shocked if you found one person that said he wasn’t a great guy. I still believe that. I knew him. I was in Stiles. I knew him well. The events of September and October of last year brought about comments and proclamations from many Yalies that didn’t know him at all, and that’s unfortunate.”

As Pogrebin continued her coverage of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, she found herself coming back to Yale. The connection made her all the more determined to cover reports on Deborah Ramirez, also Yale ’87, whose later testimony was buried by louder and whiter voices. Ramirez’s accusation focused on an incident during their shared freshman year in Lawrence Hall, home to first-years in Ezra Stiles college.

 “I ended up getting the list of who lived in Lawrance that year,” Pogrebin recalled. “It was striking to see Kavanaugh and I two entryways down from each other.” On one visit to Yale, Pogrebin looked at both her freshman-year room, in Entryway A, and Kavanaugh’s room, in Entryway D, of Lawrance Hall. “It was eerie,” she said. “Not much has changed.”

***

During her first year at Yale, Kumar-Banerjee would have described Yale as having “a glossy sheen to it.” She felt the prestige associated with the university’s name when she mentioned it offhandedly to family on the other side of the world, but during her sophomore year, that shine began to tarnish.

Julia Bialek ’23, a high school senior at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York during fall 2018, recalls watching Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in her high school constitutional law class. At the time, she was already considering applying to Yale, and the incident alleged against Kavanaugh had “happened so many years prior,” she recalled an interview with The Politic, “that part of me thought…the world was a different place. It didn’t really change my view of Yale.” She still remembers the silence that filled her high school classroom as students reflected on the magnitude of the new justice’s swearing-in. 

The night before Blasey Ford’s testimony, Yale’s campus was in uproar. Undergraduates gathered on Old Campus, forming a line between Connecticut and McClellan Halls. For several minutes, no one spoke. The silence was broken with a cry from the front: “I believe!” (“Christine Blasey Ford!” the crowd chanted back.)

The protest moved to the Women’s Table on Cross Campus. Students passed around copies of chants with phrases like “Violent men like Kavanaugh / should not arbitrate the law” and “Yale’s complicit, that we know / Kavanaugh has got to go.” Several speakers gave their thoughts; people sang and read poetry. The protest of Kavanaugh’s confirmation was the first by undergraduates and followed several by students at Yale Law School.

The morning after this protest, Dean of Yale College Marvin M. Chun sent an email to the undergraduate community. He wrote that he attended the rally and promised that he would dedicate himself to “building a campus…free from harassment, intimidation, or assault of any kind.” He did not comment on the Kavanaugh controversy itself. 

When asked about Yale’s response to Kavanaugh, Kumar-Banerjee said she was “disappointed but not surprised.” She continued: “It’s never aggressive enough. It’s never moral enough.” 

Around that time in late September of last year, another graduate student took a different stance on Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Jack Palkovic DIV ’20 tore down several posters tacked on bulletin boards across campus—posters in support of victims of sexual assault. When confronted by a Yale student, who posted the video of their conversation to Facebook, he claimed that “tearing down a sign is a part of free speech,” and that the signs read like a religious creed—which he described mockingly as “We believe holy Blasey Ford and Anita Hill, peace be upon them”—of which he was not a believer. Palkovic argued that the posters made “a statement that you have to have this viewpoint or else you’re not within the orthodox view on this campus.”

In an email correspondence with The Politic, Palkovic reflected on the events of last fall: “I decided to signal my disagreement with what I felt was the semi-Maoist hysteria that seemed to be gripping [the campus],” he said. 

While taking a class at Yale Law School when Kavanaugh hearings occurred, Palkovic said that he “got a good look at how the Law School students were behaving, and my impression was not positive, and many professors and [William F. Buckley Program at Yale] fellows shared my sentiments.” The Buckley Program did not respond to requests for comment.

Students across the university reacted to Palkovic’s actions, prompting him to send an apology email to the Divinity School community: “As a member of the Yale community, I believe strongly in the right of free expression. I apologize for taking down the sign[s] in support of Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers.”

The turmoil surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation on Yale’s campus did not dissuade Bialek from applying early action to Yale University that same fall. “I don’t think [Kavanaugh] is a reflection of Yale,” she shared. “Things like that don’t just happen at Yale or Ivy League institutions. They happen at campuses and in places across the country.”

***

“We had the title of the book going into it,” Pogrebin explained of the book she published with fellow Times reporter Kate Kelly this past September. “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh.” Pogrebin and Kelly wanted to examine the pedagogical institutions and broader environment, from preparatory school to the Ivy League, that created Brett Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the ensuing protests both in New Haven and by alumni elsewhere happened in October. Within a month, Pogrebin had been approached by Kelly about a book deal. She was happy to do it: Once Kavanaugh was confirmed, both Pogrebin and Kelly felt “a sense of unfinished business. He had been named to the court in a way that brought an abrupt ending to the story,” Pogrebin recounted. “We had more lines of reporting in our notebooks, people who felt like they hadn’t been heard, and questions that were left hanging.”

The pairing of the two reporters made sense, Pogrebin explained: Kelly, an alumna of a single-gender D.C. Catholic high school (like the new Supreme Court justice), had been speaking to her publisher about a book on Kavanaugh, but the publisher required a Yale voice. Up until that point, they hadn’t met. “The Times is a big place: [Kelly] works for the business section on the third floor, I’m [in the culture section] on the fourth floor, and it was something of a shotgun marriage,” Pogrebin said. 

Despite the emotional nature of the controversy, Pogrebin and Kelly approached the book with a determination to stay politically neutral: “What we owe everyone involved,” Pogrebin explained, “was not to make up our minds” before they started. Their job, as they saw it, was to find the facts. 

“The hardest part was being overwhelmed by the material.” Pogrebin and Kelly had a list of sources from their coverage of Kavanaugh’s confirmation for the Times and got to work. Kelly focused on Kavanaugh’s time at Georgetown Prep, while Pogrebin wrote about Yale College, Yale Law, and the events that led to his nomination to the Supreme Court. 

“He had a number of clerkships; he had gone to law school,” Pogrebin said. “We wanted to flesh out those aspects of his life and try to understand him as a three-dimensional character as well as go back to the Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez stories in greater detail, which we felt got short shrift at the time.”

“It was clear they wanted to turn this book around quickly, so we started right away.”

***

“My first day on the beat, I stepped into a national firestorm,” Alice Park ’21 recalled in an op-ed for the Yale Daily News this September. Coverage of #MeToo, the movement that began in late 2017 to support survivors and promote awareness of sexual assault, would be a harrowing job, but Park reported surprise that she ended up side-by-side with professional journalists following the Ford allegations. Outlets with international reach, such as The Guardian, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, cited YLS and undergraduate students for the world to hear.

Alumni, too, joined the chorus. Rebecca Steinitz ’86, who describes herself as not-too-involved in the Yale community, watched the pressure build in New Haven from her home in Massachusetts. Steinitz, with Yale alumna Christina Baker Kline ’86, co-wrote an open letter supporting the victims of Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual misconduct. Within 15 hours of its release, one thousand Yale women signed the open letter. Once it had gained 3,000 signatures, the letter was delivered to the desk of every senator. 

“If the women [accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault] want to go to Washington and speak, we could get 100 Yale women to show up behind them on Monday,” Steinitz remembered thinking. She was heartened: “That was ironically when I felt most like a Yale alum.”

Others were disappointed by the protests. Akhil Amar, a Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale who had taught Kavanaugh during his time at YLS, wrote a series of widely circulated articles, beginning with “A Liberal’s Case for Brett Kavanaugh” in The New York Times, which was then followed by the aptly-titled “Second Thoughts on Kavanaugh”  and “Third Thoughts on Kavanaugh” in the Yale Daily News.

In a particularly controversial turn, Amar opened his Constitutional Law class on September 26, 2018 for questions about his thoughts on Kavanaugh. In his former student’s defense, he explained: “People are human. They do things. They poop, they pee, they sexually gratify themselves—and all these things are embarrassing to admit publicly.” From a legal standpoint, he argued: “I don’t think it will ever be unconstitutional to confirm someone for a position who is guilty of a felony.” Akhil Amar declined multiple requests for comment.

Some students were aghast. “Amar’s Constitutional Law course had been strongly recommended to me,” Sarah, a student in Amar’s class that semester who requested a pseudonym for anonymity, shared. After experiencing that class, though, she  “felt like a massive depression settled over a lot of my friends.”

Another Yale student who requested anonymity felt differently: “It’s challenging and dangerous to talk about Kavanaugh as a conservative on campus because most people at Yale won’t even let you say a single word before suggesting that you endorse sexual assault. Obviously, we don’t.” Nonetheless, the student explained: “almost no Yale conservatives disagree that there should have been more investigation into the allegations.

***

As she stood Yale’s campus that October day in 2018, Kumar-Banerjee could feel the pervasive sadness at the rally, the release of long-held emotions, and the gravity the protest carried. Timothy White, president of the Yale College Democrats, remembers the worried faces glued to phones waiting for news on the nomination and the distraught friends he comforted. 

“People were saying things like ‘I’m tired’…I remember being really emotionally exhausted; there was a lot to deal with and a lot of sadness that my friends and I were coping with that we had all suppressed prior,” Kumar-Banerjee recounted. She pushed through the fatigue to show up at rallies because she believed it was crucial to show that “there could be support and love in our community in spite of this violence that exists in our lives and on the national scale.”

***

Pogrebin and Kelly’s book was published on the one-year anniversary of Blasey Ford’s allegations of Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct.

Pogrebin described, through her daughter’s remarks, the feeling of receiving her book’s national attention. “I woke up on Sunday morning after our excerpt was posted, and my daughter called and said, ‘Why is my mother trending?’” 

Soon, the world knew about Pogrebin’s and Kelly’s book. “As much as we understood  how triggering this topic this is, I don’t think we were fully prepared for the ugliness that is out there,” Pogrebin said. “It speaks to what we write about in the book, which is how politically polarized our country has become, and how President Trump’s pugilistic language has emboldened people to make casually damaging statements without necessarily being able to support them.”

The book and the Kavanaugh nomination process put American culture—contemporary discourse, but also treatment of women and sexual assault—in sharp spotlight.

As Steinitz recalled her time at Yale, she realized that “we knew stuff like this happened all the time. We knew these people; we knew guys like Brett Kavanaugh, and we knew there was a culture that was hostile towards women in many sections of the Yale community.” 

Now a first-year on campus, Bialek is forced to reckon with the continued implications of the Kavanaugh case and sexual misconduct in colleges more broadly. “What bothers me is knowing that it’s not an isolated incident or just something that happened with one guy. And even though Yale has changed since then—there are more women, it’s more inclusive and diverse—there [are] still institutional problems.”

The reception for the book among journalists was positive. The very lack of editorializing, Jill Filipovic wrote for The Washington Post, makes The Education of Brett Kavanaugh, “a remarkable work of slowed-down journalism.” The book marinates in the details and in the authors’ own unwillingness to rule a full guilty verdict without perfect proof.

Among politicians, it was even more of a firebrand. “Before our pub date had even arrived,” Pogrebin recounted, “six Democratic candidates called for Kavanaugh’s impeachment based on our book, and Trump tweeted about our book more than ten times.”

But the media moved on. 

“There were calls for Kavanaugh’s impeachment based on our book, and then Democrats shifted to calling for Trump’s impeachment, so Kavanaugh’s alleged infractions paled in comparison…. There will arguably always be an asterisk next to his name given the allegations that sullied his confirmation process,” Pogrebin explained. “He ultimately triumphed and won the prize, given his lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.”

Sarah was surprised that Yale has forgotten Kavanaugh, his defenders, and particularly Amar’s comments, which so unapologetically supported the then-judge. At the time, “I was in such shock. I was like, ‘Someone in the YDN has to be in this room—someone has to be recording this.’ But then no one ever talked about it publicly.” 

The country is a full year into Justice Kavanaugh’s term, and he has made a concerted effort to stay out of the spotlight. Reporting on Kavanaugh’s first term is few and far between. This limited news is a product of his efforts, too, as Pogrebin believes many first-term Supreme Court Justices “generally tend to keep their heads down…and Kavanaugh has all the more reason to, given that he’d clearly rather not bring more negative attention to the court.”

While Kavanaugh stays quiet and the media finds new subjects, his confirmation’s implications may be deafening. “It really is as big of a deal as it was made out to be. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court will affect a generation,” White asserted. 

Speaking of the current rapid news cycle, Pogrebin said, “The caravan moves on.”