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California’s chief justice quits the Republican Party over Kavanaugh

Turns out appointing a sexual predator to the Supreme Court isn't a good way to build a majority coalition.

CREDIT: Win McNamee/Getty Images
CREDIT: Win McNamee/Getty Images

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, a Schwarzenegger appointee to her state’s highest court, told the news site CALmatters on Thursday that she has left the Republican Party. She says that she came to the decision after watching Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court despite credible allegations that he sexually assaulted psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford while they were both in high school. Mr. Kavanaugh is now one of the nine most powerful judges in the country. As of last month, Dr. Ford was still receiving death threats from Kavanaugh’s supporters and has been unable to return to work in the month-and-a-half since she offered her testimony to Congress.

Kavanaugh was confirmed, moreover, despite the fact that the 50 senators who supported him represent nearly 40 million fewer people than the 48 who opposed him. He owes his job to Senate malapportionment, and to an undemocratic presidential election that allowed a man who lost the popular vote by 2,864,974 ballots to occupy the White House.

Though Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye says her final decision to leave the GOP was triggered by Kavanaugh, the illegitimate justice’s confirmation hearing appears to be the final straw in a long process of disillusionment. Last year, Cantil-Sakauye wrote to then-Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III and then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, saying that she is “deeply concerned about reports from some of our trial courts that immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.”

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She warned that this practice would discourage “crime victims, victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, witnesses to crimes who are aiding law enforcement, limited-English speakers, unrepresented litigants, and children and families” from seeking justice from the courts or cooperating with police.

In their response to Cantil-Sakauye’s letter, Sessions and Kelly attacked the state of California, claiming that its policies “threaten public safety” by not providing more assistance to federal immigration enforcement.

As this exchange suggests, Cantil-Sakauye’s turn away from the Republican Party mirrors a broader change in the state as a whole. California, after all, used to be a fairly conservative state — both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were Californians. The state took a hard left turn, however, after California Republicans embraced the sort of  anti-immigrant policies that Trump now embraces.

In 1994, the state’s Republican Gov. Pete Wilson ran on nativism — and for a while this strategy seemed to work. Wilson won reelection, and nearly 59 percent of the state voted for anti-immigrant Proposition 187.

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But hate’s victory proved to be short-lived. A federal court struck down Proposition 187, and the state eventually agreed to a settlement that ensured the ballot initiative would stay dead. As historian Nicole Hemmer writes, the California GOP’s nativist turn also led activists to bring “Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans who may not have been active voters but who understood the danger of the state’s growing nativism to their own interests” into politics — and to encourage many of these potential voters to become citizens and register to vote.

Today, the Republican Party is largely powerless in California’s state-level politics. In 2018, the state’s U.S. Senate race wound up being a run-off between two Democrats.