supreme court justice

Gloves come off early in Barrett confirmation hearing

Judge Amy Coney Barrett is appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee


Senators are clashing during the first day of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings, setting up early battle lines as tensions run high just weeks before the Nov. 3 elections. Judge Amy Coney Barrett is appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first time on Monday as part of her confirmation process to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

With the Q&A portion of the hearing not slated to start until Tuesday, senators spent nearly three hours on Monday morning taking shots at each other and previewing what is expected to be heated hearings, even as Democrats appear powerless to stop Republicans from placing Barrett on the Supreme Court before Election Day.

Senate Judiciary Committee Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he hoped that the four-day hearings could be respectful to the “extent possible” but acknowledged that “this is going to be a long, contentious week.”

“This is probably not about persuading each other, unless something really dramatic happens,” Graham said.

But the gloves quickly came off.

“Unfortunately, I expect the minority will try to rustle up baseless claims and scare tactics ... anything to derail the confirmation of a Republican nominee,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the former committee chairman and the third senator to speak on Monday.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) directly called out Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), another member of the committee, during his opening statement.

“Sen. Cornyn has filed brief after brief arguing for striking down the ACA. He led the failed Senate charge to repeal the ACA in 2017. ... Please don’t tell us this isn’t about the Affordable Care Act. From Cornyn job to Cornyn job to this nominee, hop, hop, hop. When Texans lose their ACA health care protections, hop, hop, hop, to see whose doorstep that steps on,” Whitehouse said.

Cornyn, sitting across the room, could be heard scoffing at Whitehouse's remarks.

Trump nominated Barrett late last month to succeed Ginsburg, teeing off an explosive election-year fight over the future of the Supreme Court. If Barrett is confirmed, she’ll lock in a 6-3 conservative majority.

Democrats lashed out at Republicans for moving forward with Barrett’s nomination just 22 days before the election after refusing to give Judge Merrick Garland, Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee in 2016, a hearing or a vote eight months before that year's presidential election.

“We shouldn’t be holding a hearing three weeks from a presidential election, when millions of Americans have already voted. Not when doing so requires that literally half of the Senate goes back on their word,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who took part in Monday’s hearing virtually.

Democrats focused their message Monday on the impact Barrett could have on health care, putting up roughly a dozen posters of individuals who would be hurt if the Supreme Court strikes down the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare.

The court is scheduled to hear a case on Nov. 10 that could determine the future of the Obama-era health care law. The challengers, a group of more than a dozen Republican states with backing from the Trump administration, argue that the law's original design depended on a requirement that most people purchase insurance and set up a tax penalty for noncompliance.

But the Trump tax cuts passed by Congress in 2017 zeroed-out the penalty, which, according to the GOP litigants, should result in the entire law being stuck down.

“My colleagues and I will focus on that subject. We will examine the consequences if, and that’s a big if, Republicans succeed in rushing this nomination through the Senate before the next president takes office,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Whitehouse added that Barrett was a "judicial torpedo” that conservative activists were trying to fire at the ACA.

Though the hearings are meant to put Barrett under the microscope, Democrats also repeatedly directed their fire at Trump, including his refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election next month.

“For the first time in the history of the United States, an incumbent president refuses to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses. This president in his vanity and constitutional recklessness refuses to commit to accept the will of the American electorate,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), appearing to speak directly to Americans watching the hearing, called the hearing a “sham” and said that the president "doesn’t think truth matters.”

"He has allies in Congress who in the past defended our democracy but are now doing his bidding,” she said. “This isn't Donald Trump's country, it is yours. This shouldn't be Donald Trump's judge, it should be yours.”

Democrats are expected to push Barrett to commit to recusing herself from any case involving the presidential election, something she has so far refused to do. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) warned that her taking part in such a case would result in “explosive enduring harm to the court's legitimacy and to your own credibility."

Though other Supreme Court nominees have been confirmed in a shorter time span, Republicans will set a record for the closest to a presidential election a Supreme Court nominee has been confirmed if they place Barrett on the bench, as expected, at the end of the month.

Under the GOP timeline, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a vote on Barrett’s nomination Oct. 22. That would set up the full Senate to confirm her during the final week of October, where she will need at least 50 "yes" votes and Vice President Pence to break a potential tie.

Graham acknowledged that Democrats were “right” to say that Republicans are confirming Barrett so close to an election. He also defended moving forward with the hearing even after two members of the committee recently tested positive for the coronavirus and an additional two senators had to self-isolate.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who tested positive, and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who tested negative but self-isolated, were both in the hearing room on Monday. Lee said he was cleared to attend in person and was spotted, like most senators, not wearing a mask while he spoke. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who tested positive, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was self-isolating because of exposure to Lee, both took part remotely.

“I feel that we’re doing this constitutionally. That our Democratic friends object to the process, I respect them all. They’ll have a chance to have their say. But most importantly I hope we will know more about how the law works ... when this hearing is over,” Graham said.

Barrett, who attended the hearing in person, is expected to sidestep the political firefights during her opening statement, the only remarks she will give Monday, instead offering a broad preview of her judicial philosophy.

"Courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life. The policy decisions and value judgments of government must be made by the political branches elected by and accountable to the people. The public should not expect courts to do so, and courts should not try," Barrett will add, according to her opening remarks that were made available before delivery.

Republicans went on the attack Monday against Democrats, accusing them of trying to set up a “religious test” for the Supreme Court.

No Democrats mentioned Barrett’s Catholic faith on Monday, but several Republican senators referenced remarks made by Feinstein during Barrett's 7th Circuit Court nomination hearing from a few years ago. Feinstein, questioning if Barrett could separate her beliefs from her job as a judge, said, “The conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.”

"This committee isn't in the business of deciding whether the dogma lives too loudly within someone. This committee isn't in the business of deciding which religious beliefs are good and which religious beliefs are bad and which religious beliefs are weird,” said Sasse.

Harris slams Republicans for pushing SCOTUS nomination over Covid-19 relief

Sen. Kamala Harris said the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Judge Amy Coney Barrett should have been postponed because of coronavirus concerns, saying the committee has not taken enough precautions to keep people safe.

"This hearing has brought together more than 50 people to sit inside of a closed door room for hours while our nation is facing a deadly airborne virus. This committee has ignored common sense requests to keep people safe – including not requiring testing for all members – despite a coronavirus outbreak among senators of this very committee," Harris said during her opening statement, speaking remotely from her Senate office.

She said not postponing the confirmation hearing puts people at risk and pauses talks about additional coronavirus relief funding.

“This hearing should have been postponed,” Harris said. “The decision to hold this hearing now is reckless and places facilities workers, janitorial staff and congressional aides and Capitol Police at risk. Not to mention while tens of millions of Americans are struggling to pay their bills, the Senate should be prioritizing coronavirus relief and providing financial support to those families," she said.

Harris said continuing with the hearing shows that "Republicans have made it crystal clear that rushing a Supreme Court nomination is more important than helping and supporting the American people who are suffering from a deadly pandemic and economic crisis."

"Their priorities are not the American people's priorities," she added.

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