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Editorial

Senate panel must fully investigate accuser’s claims

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing earlier this month.Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

If Brett Kavanaugh had a record of scrupulous honesty, the Supreme Court nominee’s denial of sexual assault allegations from when he was a teenager might be convincing. But he doesn’t. This is a man who misled the US Senate under oath, as an adult, repeatedly. His declaration that he didn’t attack Christine Blasey Ford in 1982 can’t be taken at face value.

In contrast, Ford is a credible witness who has passed a polygraph examination. What she described is awful: When both were at a party, she says, the future federal judge pinned her down, groped her, and attempted to rape her. She was about 15 at the time, and he was about 17. She did not report the incident at the time, but notes show she told a therapist about the attack in 2012.

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“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” Ford, a 51-year-old clinical psychology professor in northern California, told The Washington Post. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.”

Senators need to hear her story directly. Both Kavanaugh and Ford have offered to testify, and the Senate Judiciary Committee wisely took them up that offer by scheduling public appearances from both on Monday. But a he-said/she-said isn’t enough. The committee should also have the FBI, which conducts background checks for high-ranking government officials, investigate the story quickly and track down any other witnesses who might be able to help fill in the details. Two other individuals were reportedly at the party; others in the social circle might also be able to shed light on the allegations.

There’s a legitimate question about whether a violent offense committed as a juvenile should disqualify a Supreme Court nominee. It’s also one that the Senate doesn’t need to answer right at this moment: Whatever happened in the past, if Kavanaugh is lying or obfuscating in 2018, that speaks to his fitness as an adult.

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Even before these allegations, Kavanaugh’s actions had raised enough ethical red flags — enough to merit rejection, in the Globe’s view. His dissembling to Congress during previous sworn testimony, when his misled senators about his role in judicial nominations during the George W. Bush administration, is not thought to constitute perjury. But those answers were clearly deceptive, by any common-sense standard. When Kavanaugh returns to testify, senators need to confront him with his past misstatements and put the burden on him to explain why he should be viewed as credible now against a witness with no such checkered history.

The committee had hoped to vote on Thursday on whether to send the nomination to the full Senate, but that artificial deadline was postponed. That was the right call. After all, Supreme Court justices hold lifetime appointments. It’s hard to see how a real investigation can be completed in just a few days. And what if Ford’s story spurs others to step forward?

The Senate needs to get this right, and to understand that its handling of Ford’s allegations may have long-term implications. Three decades ago, an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee responded to Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas with character assassination. The way they mishandled those allegations sparked a political backlash. It also left a permanent cloud over Thomas — and, by extension, the Supreme Court.

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The fact that so many senators, including Republicans Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, and Bob Corker, quickly indicated that they wanted to hear more from Ford is a sign of progress compared with the Thomas hearings. But the test is whether the Senate does everything it can to learn the truth, politics and political deadlines be damned.

This editorial has been updated to reflect breaking news.