WASHINGTON — In his first major public appearance since his stormy confirmation hearings last year, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh on Thursday night addressed some 2,000 members of the Federalist Society, the influential conservative legal group, at its glittering annual gala dinner. He was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation.
Justice Kavanaugh’s remarks, by turns lighthearted and emotional, were reflections on his confirmation hearings in the form of expressions of gratitude to people who had helped him weather them.
“I signed up for what I knew would be an ugly process,” he said, before stopping himself. “Maybe not that ugly.”
He said his friends had endured unfair attacks.
“People risked their jobs, their livelihoods,” he said. “Some of them lost business. They were yelled at, insulted, threatened. Many of my friends lost other friends merely because they supported me. My friends paid a heavy price, way too heavy a price.”
Recalling the prayers of one of his daughters, he choked up. “Matt Damon would have made it through this,” he said, referring to the actor’s indelible portrayal of him on “Saturday Night Live.”
Two other conservative members of the court — Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch — were also present at the black-tie dinner in a cavernous main hall of Union Station. Outside, liberal activists had arranged for a large video screen to play the Senate testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Justice Kavanaugh of sexual assault last year.
As Justice Kavanaugh began his remarks, protesters blowing whistles were hustled from the dinner.
Public appearances by justices before friendly audiences are commonplace, and several of the court’s more liberal justices have appeared before the American Constitution Society, a liberal group. Justice Kavanaugh’s remarks on Thursday were notable for a different reason: He has almost entirely stayed out of the spotlight since he joined the Supreme Court 13 months ago.
The Federalist Society, founded in 1982, has long cultivated law students and young lawyers, partly to ensure a deep bench of potential judicial nominees. Justice Kavanaugh joined the group as a law student at Yale.
President Trump has repeatedly credited the group, along with the Heritage Foundation, another leading conservative policy organization, with helping to draw up and cull his lists of his potential nominees to the Supreme Court. Both of his appointees appeared on those lists.
Leonard A. Leo, the Federalist Society’s executive vice president, has advised Mr. Trump on judicial nominations and worked on the confirmations of the two Trump appointees, Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch. The society itself, its website says, does not take political positions or endorse nominees.
On Thursday, Justice Kavanaugh said he had been coming to the society’s annual dinners for 25 years, adding that its work is misunderstood. “Its primary point of view,” he said of the group, “is to be open to all points of view.”
“I have always been,” he said, “a proud member of the Federalist Society.”
Justice Kavanaugh’s generally mild tone on Thursday was in sharp contrast to his heated response to accusations at his confirmation hearings last year that he had committed sexual assault in high school.
“This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit,” he said angrily at the time, “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.”
Justice Kavanaugh, now 54, was confirmed by a vote of 50 to 48.
On the Supreme Court bench, Justice Kavanaugh has a calm manner, asking focused questions of both sides. His written opinions have been clear, accessible and not particularly ideological. In his first term on the court, which ended in June, he was in the majority in divided cases more than any other justice.
His new colleagues have welcomed and praised him. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the senior member of the court’s liberal wing, said in June that she was pleased by his hiring practices. “Justice Kavanaugh made history by bringing on board an all-female law clerk crew,” she said. “Thanks to his selections, the court has this term, for the first time ever, more women than men serving as law clerks.”
On Thursday, Justice Gorsuch praised all of his new colleagues. “They are patriots,” he said. “They love our court, and they love our country.”
He singled out Justice Ginsburg, calling her an inspiration.
At the justices’ frequent lunches, Justice Kavanaugh’s replacement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy has, he said, changed the topics discussed. There has been, he said, “a significant increase in sports talk and a major, major decrease in Shakespeare analysis.”
“What can I say?” Justice Kavanaugh said. “To thine own self be true.”
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