WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rachel Mitchell had a difficult mission as the lawyer hired by Republican senators to question the woman accusing U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault: test her memory, but treat her respectfully.
At a dramatic Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, Mitchell walked that fine line with accuser Christine Blasey Ford, but produced only mixed results and conceded the difficulty of the challenge before her.
After more than four hours of questioning Ford in five-minute blocks interspersed by questions from Democratic senators, Mitchell asked Ford in closing remarks if she knew about the best ways to interview trauma victims.
“Would you believe me if I told you that there’s no study that says that this setting, in five-minute increments, is the best way to do that?” Mitchell asked.
The question drew laughter from Ford and her attorney Michael Bromwich, who interjected: “We’ll stipulate to that.”
The exchange underscored the strange format of the first half of the hearing, in which Mitchell, who normally prosecutes alleged perpetrators instead of defending them, quizzed Ford on behalf of Republicans, who sat silent behind her.
The panel’s 11 male Republicans hired Mitchell for the task, saying they felt it required an outside expert on sexual assault cases to handle the questioning.
Democrats argued before the hearing that the move was an attempt by Republicans to prevent a replay of 1991, when a full panel of male members of the Senate Judiciary Committee was seen by critics as bullying Anita Hill, who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
Jules Epstein, a Temple University law professor, said of Mitchell: “She had a wonderful manner with the witness, and that’s a plus no matter what side you’re on.”
But he added that Ford’s testimony, even after Mitchell tried to poke holes in it, seemed credible. As for Mitchell’s questions on behalf of Republicans, he said: “If that’s all they have, it’s not very effective. ... I’m not sure what the strategy is.”
Ford, a university professor in California, has accused Kavanaugh, a conservative judge, of sexually assaulting her in 1982 when both were high school students. Her allegation of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh and those of two other women have put in jeopardy his bid for a lifetime Supreme Court job.
Kavanaugh has denied the allegations. When his turn to testify came, Mitchell asked a few questions. Then Republican senators began asking their own questions.
Mitchell is on leave as a special crimes prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix.
She said to Ford the best way to “get to memory and truth in terms of interviewing victims of trauma” is for the alleged victim and a trained interviewer to meet one-on-one privately. That was far from what happened in the committee hearing.
“You could tell that she, too, was frustrated,” Senator Dick Durbin, a committee Democrat, said of Mitchell.
Some Democrats said they were relieved by Mitchell’s demeanour towards Ford in the hearing.
“Her questioning has been professional and level,” said Senator Chris Coons, a committee Democrat.
Reporting by David Morgan and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney