WASHINGTON — An unusual confirmation process for an uncommon Supreme Court nominee began Monday when Judge Amy Coney Barrett appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on a fast track aimed at making her a justice by the end of the month.
The first day of four days of hearings began on a federal holiday in a spacious, socially distanced Senate Hart Office Building room outfitted for coronavirus safety after the full Senate went on a hastily called recess following positive COVID-19 tests for three Senate Republicans.
"This is probably not about persuading each other unless something really dramatic happens," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the committee chairman. "All the Republicans will vote yes, all the Democrats will vote no."
At the center of the sharp divide is Barrett, 48, a federal appellate judge who would be the only sitting justice not from Harvard or Yale, the first from the Midwest in nearly five decades, the first mother of school-aged children ever and the most openly anti-abortion nominee in years.
When it came her turn to talk after all 22 senators on the committee were done, she spoke lovingly of her children, husband and family members; praised her mentors, including the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, and briefly described how she would judge.
Echoing Scalia’s originalist philosophy, Barrett said, "I believe Americans of all backgrounds deserve an independent Supreme Court that interprets our Constitution and laws as they are written. And I believe I can serve my country by playing that role."
Here are some highlights from day one of the hearings.
Barrett plays it safe
Barrett seldom strayed from her prepared remarks, released on Sunday, when she finally stood and removed her mask to address the committee and the audience beyond on television, steaming video and radio. With her husband and six of their seven children behind her to the right, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone behind her to her left, Barrett thanked President Donald Trump, though not by name, and others who helped her along in her career. She also hailed the trailblazing roles of former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the high court, and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barrett said she had not sought the position, but accepted it as a duty. She also offered a clue into her thinking about judging. "But courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life," she said. And later she added, "I ask myself how would I view the decision if one of my children was the party I was ruling against: Even though I would not like the result, would I understand that the decision was fairly reasoned and grounded in the law?"
Democrats: Health care is at stake
Democrats, who know they can’t stop Barrett’s confirmation, decided to use the spotlight of the hearing to highlight their top political issue: health care. The Supreme Court will hear a Republican case to strike down the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, one week after the Nov. 3 election — and Barrett could be the deciding vote. Each Democrat had a poster-sized picture and a story of someone who would be harmed by the scrapping of the health law and its protection for people with preexisting conditions. Republicans accused Democrats of "fear mongering." But Democrats pushed ahead, aiming their stories at wavering voters and even Barrett herself. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) told her that she twice had said she would strike down the Affordable Care Act. "Judge Barrett," he said, "you have auditioned for this job through your academic writings and judicial opinions and you passed the exam."
Republicans allege religious bigotry
Republicans raked Democrats for their treatment of Barrett for her Catholic faith during her hearing to become a federal appellate judge in Chicago three years ago. Democrats steered clear of any mention of religion at Monday's hearing and said they would not question her on it. But Republicans kept returning to it. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) criticized Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), recalling that in that 2017 hearing "the ranking member referred to your Catholic convictions as ‘dogma’ — that's a quote — ‘that lives loudly within you,’ picking up the very terminology of anti-Catholic bigotry current in this country a century ago." And Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) defended Barrett, citing a 1998 essay she had written that said: "Judges cannot nor should they try to align our legal system with the church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge."
Ginsburg’s long shadow
The late justice had her own presence in the room, as both sides often referred to her, Republicans with complimentary statements and Democrats with a fury that she should be replaced so quickly and against her final wishes for the next president to choose the nominee. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) recalled Ginsburg’s eulogy for Scalia in 2016: "We were different, yes, in our interpretation of written text yet one in our reverence for the courts and its place in the U.S. system of governance." But Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate, criticized the rush to replace Ginsburg. "Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg devoted her life to fight for equal justice, and she defended the Constitution," Harris said in a remote transmission. "But now her legacy and the rights she fought so hard to protect are in jeopardy. By replacing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with someone who will undo her legacy, President Trump is attempting to roll back Americans' rights for decades to come."
Outside: Dueling chants
Barred from the hearing room for health reasons, backers and foes of Barrett’s nomination braved the rain to crowd around the building complex outside as U.S. Capitol Police kept the two sides apart. Opponents — some in white germ-free suits — blocked one entrance and waved signs saying "Save the ACA" and "Save Roe" while chanting "let the people decide." Supporters, many of them from Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group, outnumbered them, hoisting their own signs with a chorus of "confirm Amy." These are the foot soldiers of a larger, more expensive PR battle over Barrett’s nomination. The liberal Demand Justice and conservative Judicial Crisis Network each have said they’ll spend about $10 million on ads.