While 53-year-old Judge Brett Kavanaugh, his reputation in tatters amid mounting if sketchy allegations of sexual assault committed decades ago, was on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon delivering a blistering defense of himself by lambasting Democrats and allies of the Clintons, 97-year-old Judge Thomas Reavley, an equal on the federal bench (at least at present), was at Baylor Law School in Waco giving an alternately upbeat and melancholic view of the country and Baylor law students’ potential role in it.

And if I was initially disappointed at Judge Reavley’s rambling, at times confused remarks in his showcased conversation with Baylor Law School Dean Brad Toben before a couple hundred attentive students, I can see in hindsight how some remarks might have been unerringly appropriate. Rather than simply lamenting further escalation of the national partisan divide that has Americans hating one another so, Texas-born Reavley repeatedly reminded law students of the need to walk the straight and narrow in their legal destinies — and to fight for founding principles rather than pursuing wealth.

“We’ve got to have leadership, we’ve got to have more people speaking out, writing, speaking, teaching, and we’ve got to have people like those sitting right here,” the senior appeals judge said. “Don’t go out and see how much money you can make... We have a serious, critical need in our country for honesty and integrity.”

Only once did the judge — appointed to the Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit by President Carter in 1979 — betray visceral feelings on the national spectacle in D.C. His voice became forceful when asked about Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Kavanaugh, appointed to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (and amid controversy even back then) by President George W. Bush, and Kavanaugh’s chief accuser, Christine Blasey Ford: “I’m for Dr. Ford. Dr. Ford has convinced me.”

Then the old jurist abruptly assumed a more measured, appropriately judicial tone, retreating into ambivalent musing. But his remarks were imbued by hope: “I’m worried about our country. We’ll get around [all this], but we’ll only get around because people like you decide that the values you learn here and the skills you have learned here should be devoted to the common good. I don’t want to get into the politics of it.”

If the senior judge’s brief outburst before Baylor students struck some as less than judicial in poise and temperament, it only slightly matched Kavanaugh’s less than judicial outrage that very same afternoon. Kavanaugh, vying for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land, exploded in rage before senators about not only sexual-assault allegations against him but how they have been manipulated for maximum political effect by the Democrats, possibly including some irked over his long-ago role assisting independent counsel Ken Starr in the Whitewater investigation that strayed into President Bill Clinton’s sexual trysts with a White House intern.

“This has destroyed my family and my good name — a good name built up through decades of very hard work and public service at the highest levels of the American government,” Judge Kavanaugh charged angrily during Supreme Court nomination hearings. “This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups. This is a circus. The consequences will extend long past my nomination. The consequences will be with us for decades.”

While Kavanaugh and Reavley are greatly separated by age, distance, military service and views on civil rights and the rule of law, their comments collectively suggest not only America’s free-fall from greatness but heightened politicization of the federal judiciary. Yes, blame the Democrats for undermining the Senate’s once-cherished deliberative nature by gutting the useful filibuster in considering all federal judicial nominations below Supreme Court. But be fair and blame Republicans for their record of solid obstruction and moving Senate goal posts on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, a Kavanaugh colleague of considerable merit, in 2016. And blame evangelical pastors for advising their flocks to vote into the White House a man of glaring ethical failures and constitutional ignorance just to get more conservatives on the highest court to promote a pro-life agenda. And blame Chief Justice John Roberts for not speaking out when the Republicans ignored constitutional intent and refused to consider the Garland nomination, bolstering the belief that Roberts put party over an independent judiciary. The consequence: a tarnished court arguably beyond all redemption sinking fast into a swamp many suspected would never be drained, only restocked.

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Bill Whitaker is the Waco Trib opinion editor.

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