WASHINGTON ― A Republican senator likened his party’s refusal to believe sexual assault accusations against a Supreme Court nominee to the heroism of a character from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said during a Senate floor speech Thursday that “some commentators have called this our Atticus Finch moment,” referring to the fictional attorney who defended his African-American client from a white woman’s false rape accusation. (Several conservative commentators cited Finch this week.)
“We all remember that Atticus Finch was a lawyer who did not believe that a mere accusation was synonymous with guilt,” Cornyn said. “He represented an unpopular person who many people presumed was guilty of a heinous crime because of his race and his race alone.”
The Senate is likely to confirm Brett Kavanaugh on Saturday as the next justice on the Supreme Court after Republicans held a successful procedural vote on Friday. For the most part, Republicans have said they do not believe Christine Blasey Ford’s claim that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when the two were high school students.
At one point in “To Kill a Mockingbird,″ which takes place in 1930s Alabama, Finch defends his client, Tom Robinson, from a white lynch mob. Robinson is ultimately convicted of the false rape accusation, even though Finch thoroughly discredited his accuser. Cornyn said Finch’s spirited defense of his client in the face of threats and intimidation is an example Republicans should follow.
“We could learn from Atticus Finch now, during this time when there has been such a vicious and unrelenting attack on the integrity and good name of this nominee,” Cornyn said.
During a very brief hallway interview Friday, I asked Cornyn about this analogy ― if Republicans are Atticus Finch, does that mean Kavanaugh is a black man in the Jim Crow South?
“I’ll refer you back to what I said about it,” he said.
A Cornyn spokesman declined to comment.
The “Mockingbird” analogy doesn’t hold up. The context of the accusations against the two men couldn’t be more different. Kavanaugh has lived a life of extreme privilege; the fictional Robinson lived in an age of racial terrorism.
As the Pulitzer Prize Board explained when it selected Harper Lee’s novel for its 1960 fiction award, the book is about more than just a trial.
“What starts out quietly as a picture of small-town life is developed with authentic artistry into a climactic courtroom clash, in which not only a Negro prisoner is on trial but also the cherished, age-old mores of the South itself,” the Pulitzer jurors wrote.
The Los Angeles Times republished the Pulitzer citation when Harper Lee died in 2016, along with some helpful footnotes, including one for the phrase “age-old mores of the South itself.”
“When the jurors were writing, the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination was still three years away,” the footnote explained. “It had been six years since Emmett Till was killed, six years since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. As the Civil Rights movement began in earnest, America’s problems of racism and discrimination had become part of the national conversation.”
As Jamelle Bouie reported for Slate, during the Jim Crow era rape accusations by white women against black men could be pretexts for lynching: “In real-life Depression-era Alabama, nine black Americans were lynched between 1929 and 1939; two of the victims were accused of ‘rape.’”
Unlike the jury deciding Robinson’s fate in “Mockingbird,” the decision before the Senate is not whether Kavanaugh is guilty or innocent, but whether he belongs on the Supreme Court or should remain a federal appeals court judge.