Amy Coney Barrett: Trump Supreme Court nominee sidesteps questions

  • Published
Media caption,

Judge Barrett: "No conversation with the president on how I might rule" over the Affordable Care Act or any election dispute

US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett has evaded questions about her views on key issues on day two of her Senate confirmation hearing.

The conservative judge repeatedly refused to be drawn on abortion, healthcare and LGBTQ rights.

She stated she had "no agenda" and vowed to stick to "the rule of law".

If Judge Barrett passes the committee hearing, the full Senate will vote to confirm or reject her for a lifelong place on the top US court.

Republicans want the confirmation ahead of the presidential election on 3 November. It would give the nine-member court a 6-3 conservative majority, altering the ideological balance of the court for potentially decades to come.

Democrats fear Judge Barrett's successful nomination would favour Republicans in politically sensitive cases that reach the Supreme Court.

She is the proposed replacement for liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last month aged 87.

On Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said she was "one of the greatest picks President Trump could make" for the court, while Senator Chuck Grassley, a fellow Republican, said her record showed she would approach each case in an "unbiased" way.

Republicans hold a slim majority in the US Senate, the body that confirms Supreme Court judges, making Judge Barrett's nomination very likely to pass.

Democrats fear her as a threat to issues such as the healthcare reforms passed under former President Barack Obama. They have criticised the rushed nomination process as "reckless" and a "sham", amid a coronavirus pandemic that has killed 215,000 people in the US.

They have also accused Republicans of hypocrisy. In March 2016, when Mr Obama, a Democrat, put forward a nominee to fill a spot on the court, the Senate Republicans refused to hold hearings, arguing the decision should not be made in an election year.

What's happening at Tuesday's hearing?

Tuesday is the first of two days of direct questioning from senators on the deeply divided Judiciary Committee. On Monday the judge explained her legal philosophy and qualifications for the position.

Democratic senators are scrutinising her conservative views and decisions she has delivered as a judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Much of her record could be seen to be in opposition to the philosophy of the late Justice Ginsburg.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, asked her for her opinions on abortion and LGBTQ rights. But Judge Barrett said it would be wrong as a sitting judge "to make my opinion about precedents".

"I have an agenda to stick to the rule of law," she said, stating that she had "no agenda to try to overrule" other decisions.

The judge is a devout Catholic but stated she had "never tried to impose" her personal choices on others, in her personal life or her professional life.

Media caption,

Judge Barrett dodged a question from Senator Amy Klobuchar about whether voter intimidation was illegal

Democrats fear she could vote to strike down reforms providing health insurance to millions of Americans when the court hears a case against the public health insurance scheme next month.

Judge Barrett has in the past criticised a 2012 Supreme Court ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

But asked for her opinions on the law, Judge Barrett refused again, arguing that as this case is soon to be heard by the court, "the canons of judicial conduct prohibit me from expressing a view".

She also stated that she had had "no conversation with the president or any of his staff" about how she might rule on the healthcare case, adding that it would be a "complete violation of the independence of the judiciary" for someone to put a judge on a court to get a "particular result".

The judge also refused to state whether she would abstain from taking part if any dispute about the presidential election ended up in the Supreme Court. While she vowed to "fully and faithfully" follow the law of recusal, she said she could not "offer a legal conclusion right now".

Democrats have questioned her impartiality given her nomination to the bench by Mr Trump. The president has previously stated that he wants the conservative Judge Barrett confirmed before 3 November, in case issues surrounding the election end up before the top US court.

In the event of disputes surrounding the vote, the Supreme Court could theoretically intervene - as was the case in the 2000 US presidential election between George W Bush and Al Gore.

The confirmation hearings last four days.

Sticking to the playbook

Modern Supreme Court confirmation hearings have become an exercise in obliqueness. Nominees have learned the best way to ensure a smooth and drama-free path to success is to remain noncommittal on the most controversial topics of the day.

On her first day of direct questioning from senators, Amy Coney Barrett has been meticulously sticking to this playbook. Asked about issues like abortion, gun control and gay rights, the judge has been circumspect. She says she will honour the court's prior decisions and will reserve judgement on cases that could someday be under her review.

Even on topics like the Democratic-passed healthcare reform, the legality of which she has publicly questioned in the past, Judge Barrett dodged. A high-profile challenge to ACA, also known as Obamacare, is before the court next month, but the judge said her past commentary is not relevant to the questions of law at issue.

The circumstances around this confirmation hearing are extraordinary, given the looming presidential election and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. For the moment, however, this seems like a typical - even predictable - process. The longer it appears that way, the better it is for Republicans, as the predictable outcome is Judge Barrett receiving a lifetime appointment to the court.

Who is Amy Coney Barrett?

  • favoured by social conservatives due to record on issues like abortion and gay marriage
  • a devout Catholic but says her faith does not influence her legal opinion
  • is an originalist, which means interpreting US Constitution as authors intended, not moving with the times
  • lives in Indiana, has seven children including two adopted from Haiti

What's the confirmation process?

After the hearings end, any committee member can require an additional week before the formal panel vote on whether to present the nomination for confirmation before the full Senate.

If she passes the committee stage, the full Senate will vote to confirm or reject Judge Barrett's nomination. Republicans already appear to have the 51 votes needed to get Judge Barrett confirmed.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to hold a confirmation vote before the presidential election.

Barring a surprise, Democrats seem to have few options to prevent her from gliding through the Senate to the Supreme Court bench. The expected schedule is:

  • 12 October: First of four days of hearings
  • 15 October: The "markup", otherwise known as internal debate, begins. Democrats may delay the process by a week, but Republicans may change rules to prevent this
  • 22 October: The Judiciary Committee votes
  • 23 October or later: The full Senate votes on Judge Barrett's confirmation
  • 3 November: Election day

Battle over Supreme Court

Image source, Getty Images