Legal Momentum has been closely following the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and to the allegations put forward by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and others that Judge Kavanaugh raped and sexually harassed them. Today, Americans turn their attention toward Capitol Hill as Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Prior to this hearing, Legal Momentum was invited to submit a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the hearing. On September 26, 2018, Legal Momentum submitted our letter stressing the need for a full, fair, and informed hearing to the Chairman and Minority Leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter is reproduced in full below:
Dear Chairman Grassley and Ranking Member Feinstein:
Founded in 1970 as NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, Legal Momentum is the nation’s oldest civil rights organization dedicated to advancing the rights of women and girls. In the nearly fifty years that Legal Momentum has been at the forefront of this movement, we have brought awareness to the realities of sexual harassment and sexual assault in schools, workplaces, and homes; advanced policies which provide crucial services for victims and survivors and promote safe and supportive environments for seeking justice; and educated the judiciary and justice system professionals about gender bias and its insidious effect on our justice system.
Legal Momentum was closely involved in the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings before this Committee in 1991. We call on the Senate Judiciary Committee not to repeat the errors of that proceeding but instead—with the benefit of 27 years of further understanding about sexual harassment and assault—to conduct a full, fair, and informed inquiry.
By “full” we mean that an independent body must conduct an investigation of Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegations - a body experienced and competent in gathering evidence in sexual assault investigations such that the Senate Judiciary Committee and the American public can rely on the integrity of the information gathering process and the information gathered.
By “informed” we mean that the Senate Judiciary Committee questioners must have a basic understanding of how memory works in traumatic situations – whether the situation is a home invasion or a hostage taking or a sexual assault. There should not be an expectation that Dr. Blasey Ford can provide a moment-by-moment, detailed account of the assault she alleges Judge Kavanaugh committed against her when they were in high school. Dr. Blasey Ford should be given the space to relate a narrative in whatever manner she recalls the events, whether a linear account or one told in traumatic, sensory fragments. As President Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, titled her September 22, 2018 op-ed in the Washington Post, “Why I don’t recall all the details of my sexual assault,” Ms. Davis described being raped by a music industry executive during a business meeting and wrote:
“It’s important to understand how memory works in a traumatic event. Ford has been criticized for the things she doesn’t remember, like the address where she says the assault happened, or the time of year, or whose house it was. But her memory of the attack itself is vivid and detailed. His hand over her mouth, another young man piling on, her fear that maybe she’d die there, unable to breathe. That’s what happens: Your memory snaps photos of the details that will haunt you forever, that will change your life and live under your skin. It blacks out other parts of the story that really don’t matter much.”
It is essential that the Senate Judiciary Committee begin this inquiry with an expert on traumatic memory who can explain to the panel, and the watching American public, why trauma victims focus on what Davis so powerfully called the “indelible” images that “will haunt you forever.” Legal Momentum’s National Judicial Education Program pioneered judicial education about the neurobiology of trauma almost twenty years ago. We know that the principles are not easily grasped. But the process through which Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony is elicited can only be fairly conducted, and her testimony understood, with this background. As articulated by Dr. Jim Hopper, renowned expert on psychological trauma, in a September 24, 2018 Rolling Stonearticle, “This is what makes sexual assault the easiest violent crime to get away with. Because the crime itself creates memories that then the perpetrator and their protectors can use to discredit the victim.”
And by “fair” we mean resisting the inclination to mimic the criminal justice process in this Senate confirmation hearing. Dr. Blasey Ford is not on trial. This is not the criminal justice context. The purpose of this process is to determine the character and fitness of Judge Kavanaugh for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in our country, the final arbiter of all questions concerning the rights and benefits of American life.
Legal Momentum has been front and center for watershed moments for women’s rights. We recognize that this, too, is a moment which will shape the thinking of the American public with regard to women’s value in our society, safe harbor for perpetrators of sexual violence, and the integrity of our congressional and judicial systems. It is rare that a moment like this presents itself. The Senate Judiciary Committee has the opportunity to redeem itself from the mistakes made in 1991 and to conduct a full, fair, and informed inquiry into accusations of sexual assault committed by a man nominated to one of the most powerful positions in our government. We urge you to show the American public that we have grown as a society in the past 27 years, and that we can have faith in our system of government and in the rule of law.
Carol Baldwin Moody, Esq., President & CEO, Legal Momentum
Lynn Hecht Schafran, Esq., Senior Vice President, Legal Momentum & Director, National Judicial Education Program