WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hoping to salvage the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and cement a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court for a generation, Republicans have chosen a woman who prosecuted sex crimes in Arizona to question President Donald Trump’s nominee about sexual assault allegations.
In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, Rachel Mitchell, and not the Republican committee members, all of whom are male, will question Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her in high school.
Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said they chose Mitchell for her experience and objectivity. She is on leave as chief of the special victims division in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, Arizona.
As the special victims division head, she supervises prosecutors handling cases of sexual assault, child molestation, child prostitution and computer-related sexual offenses. She had served as a prosecutor since 1993.
Her office said she was not available for interviews on Wednesday.
Mitchell was drawn to prosecuting sex crimes after assisting a senior lawyer in a case against a youth choir director, she told a magazine affiliated with a Christian organization in 2012. “It struck me how innocent and vulnerable the victims of these cases really were,” she said.
One of Mitchell’s notable victories came in 2005 when she secured a guilty verdict against Catholic priest Paul LeBrun for sexually abusing boys in Arizona in the 1980s and 1990s. He was sentenced to 111 years in prison.
In 2011, Mitchell was criticized over what the Phoenix New Times newspaper called a “slap-on-the-wrist” plea deal for an elder in the Jehovah’s Witness church who had abused a Phoenix teenager.
A statement from Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, her boss, said Mitchell has a “caring heart” for victims and has lectured around the country on sexual assault investigations and prosecutions.
“The American people can be confident that Rachel Mitchell’s experience as a conscientious prosecutor, trained to seek justice, protect victims, and pursue truth will assist the Senate Judiciary Committee in performing its important task,” he said.
Blasey Ford’s attorneys have objected to the use of an outside counsel at Thursday’s hearing, saying Ford has repeatedly requested that senators handle the questioning.
“This is not a criminal trial for which the involvement of an experienced sex crimes prosecutor would be appropriate,” Ford lawyer Michael Bromwich said in a letter sent to Grassley on Monday and seen by Reuters.
Ford, a university professor in California, has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in 1982 when both were students at a private high school in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. Her allegations, along with those of another woman, have put Kavanaugh’s lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court in jeopardy. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.
Another woman came forward on Wednesday with yet more claims of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, further inflaming an already contentious confirmation process.
Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Damon Darlin and Lisa Shumaker