Rachel Mitchell Goes to Washington – and It Doesn't Go Well

Rachel Mitchell "was given an impossible task," said Paul Bender, dean emeritus of the Sandra DayO'Connor College of Law at ASU.
Rachel Mitchell "was given an impossible task," said Paul Bender, dean emeritus of the Sandra DayO'Connor College of Law at ASU. C-Span
The day deteriorated steadily on Thursday for Rachel Mitchell, a respected Maricopa County prosecutor tapped by Senate Republicans to question Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee whom Ford has accused of sexual assault.

Far from undermining Ford's credibility, Mitchell's questioning strengthened it, prompting some GOP senators to concede that their strategy had backfired. As for her questioning of Kavanaugh, there barely was any, because the 11 male Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee no longer needed the veneer of equity that Mitchell's female face — imagine! a group of male senators questioning a woman's story of sexual assault or harassment — provided them during Ford's testimony.

As senators questioned an irate Kavanaugh and the environment became increasingly vitriolic, Mitchell faded into the foreground, nestled within a semicircle of blustering, finger-pointing senators.

What went wrong? How did a sex crimes prosecutor end up as a poor facade for fairness for Republican senators hell bent on confirming Kavanaugh and insisting on his innocence? Observers blame a lack of time, poor strategy, and an inherent conflict between the work that Mitchell has done for a quarter century and the task she was given on Thursday. Mitchell had a day and a half to prepare for the hearing, and she has made her career prosecuting sex crimes, not appearing on the side of those accused of them. 

"She's out of her field here," said Rick Romley, a former Maricopa County attorney who was once Mitchell's boss. In the courtroom, representing victims, she has done outstanding work, he said. But during Ford's hearing, Mitchell was asked to challenge issues like repressed memories, or the length of time survivors sometimes wait to report an assault, that are well known to be part of the dynamics of sexual assault.

"I think this was the wrong assignment at the wrong time for her," Romley said.

On Thursday, after hearing Ford's opening statement detailing how Brett Kavanaugh tried to force himself on her when they were in high school, Mitchell smiled sympathetically. "I wanted to let you know: I'm very sorry," she said to Ford, in a sincere tone. She laid out guidelines for the hearing, then began asking Ford about five different pieces of information from the summer and fall, when Ford sought to share her story with elected officials and with the Washington Post.

But because Mitchell was taking the place of Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee, she was allotted only five minutes at a time for questioning. When Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman, interrupted her to tell her first five minutes were over, Mitchell seemed flustered.

"This format has been horrible," Romley said. "It's a horrible format for an experienced attorney to be broken up every five minutes, before you can even get to your point."

So, in five-minute intervals, between statements and questions from the committee's Democratic senators, Mitchell proceeded to ask Ford questions about the details of her story, like how Ford knew it was Kavanaugh who had put his hand over her mouth, to repress her screams as she fought to push him off of her one night at a small gathering in 1982, when she was 15.

"Mitchell was given an impossible task." —Paul Bender

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"It appeared to me that her initial approach was going to be challenging the credibility of Mrs. Ford," Romley said. "But it didn’t sound like she had much information to do that. She was hoping that an answer would give her an opening for a gotcha moment."

That didn't happen. Instead, Mitchell asked questions to which she didn't already have the answers, or questions that did not seem important or even relevant. She grilled Ford on her fear of flying, trying to point out that although Ford had not wanted to fly to Washington, D.C., for questioning, she would take airplanes for vacations. None of those questions elicited new facts, or successfully cast doubt on Ford's credibility as a witness.

"Mitchell was given an impossible task," said Paul Bender, a professor of law and dean emeritus for the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. "She was put in a completely unfamiliar role, sort of backwards. I couldn't believe [the Republicans] were getting a prosecutor to do that, because that makes it looks like Kavanaugh is a criminal defendant."

Mitchell questioned Kavanaugh briefly, in a way that seemed for show more than anything. After drinking, had he ever woken in a different place than the one he fell asleep in, or had he ever woken up with his clothes in a different condition? Had he ever ground his genitalia against Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, or tried to remove her clothes? No, Kavanaugh dutifully answered, over and over. (What else would he have said?)
Then, Republican senators started taking over their five-minute allotments, and all hell broke loose. On multiple occasions, Kavanaugh proclaimed his love for beer, and in an exchange most likely unprecedented in a Senate hearing, a discussion of flatulence happened. Senator Lindsey Graham all but shouted during his statement defending Kavanaugh, violently jabbing his index finger into the air and toward the Democrats.

Compared to that scene, Mitchell did the Republicans a great service. If the Republican senators had cross-examined Ford, they might have grown just as livid as they did during Kavanaugh's hearing, Bender said.

"They might've said, you're part of a conspiracy," he added. "I think Mitchell had the effect of stopping the Republicans from looking as bad as they might’ve looked."
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.