Presidential politics dominated the opening of US Senate hearings on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, with senators on both sides of the political aisle using the Supreme Court confirmation to air criticisms made on the campaign trail by their party’s presidential candidate.
The hearings, which are scheduled for four days this week, are the latest step in what has been an accelerated push by Republicans to install Ms Barrett on the high court before the November 3 election. President Donald Trump is currently trailing his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, in polls.
Lindsey Graham, the Senate judiciary committee’s Republican chairman, acknowledged that no Supreme Court justice had ever been confirmed as close to a presidential election as Ms Barrett was set to be. But he noted that there was no constitutional impediment to doing so.
He predicted that the hearings were likely to follow a predictable partisan route. “This is probably not about persuading each other, unless something really dramatic happens,” he said. “This is going to be a long, contentious week.”
Ms Barrett, a federal appellate judge appointed by Mr Trump and a law professor, is expected to be confirmed to the vacant seat left by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal icon, last month.
With her likely ascension, the hearings are an opportunity for both parties to score political points as Americans prepare to vote on November 3 — indeed, many voters are already casting ballots early or by mail.
In opening statements, Republicans on the committee sought to raise the spectre of Democrats packing the Supreme Court by adding more justices if Mr Biden wins the White House, something Mr Trump has claimed in recent campaign appearances.
Mr Biden has declined to address the issue, claiming it is a distraction from the issues presented by Ms Barrett’s nomination. Ms Barrett’s ascension to the court would tilt it further to the right with a 6-3 majority of Republican-appointed justices.
“Lately the left is threatening to pack the Supreme Court in retaliation for this confirmation process,” said Chuck Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa. John Cornyn, the Republican from Texas, warned such a move threatened to turn the Supreme Court into another legislative body.
Democrats used the televised hearings to focus on healthcare and the Affordable Care Act, Barack Obama’s signature healthcare policy, which Mr Trump and Republicans have sought to undo through federal courts.
The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in another challenge to “Obamacare” on November 10, a week after the election. Ms Barrett has previously expressed her opposition to earlier cases in which the court upheld the law.
“This hearing is a clear attempt to jam through a Supreme Court nominee who will take healthcare away from millions of people during a deadly pandemic,” said Kamala Harris, who is Mr Biden’s running mate as well as a Democratic member of the Senate judiciary committee.
Democrats held up pictures of constituents they said relied on the ACA for their healthcare as they sought to reinforce their core claim about Ms Barrett’s nomination. Despite Republican efforts to strike down the ACA, polling suggests a majority of Americans support keeping it.
Amy Klobuchar, the Democrat from Minnesota, acknowledged the focus on presidential politics. “We cannot divorce this nominee and her views from the election we are in. We didn’t choose to do this now, to plop a Supreme Court nomination in the middle of an election,” she said.
Ms Barrett in her opening remarks tried to reassure the committee that she sees the Supreme Court as having a limited role in shaping US society, a tactic used by other recent nominees.
Her confirmation would give the conservative wing of the court a freer hand in deciding cases and has been described by rightwing activists as a generational opportunity to embed conservative principles in US law.
“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,” Ms Barrett said.
Democrats steered clear of comments about Ms Barrett’s devout Catholic beliefs on Monday. In 2017, when she was confirmed to be an appeals court judge, Republicans seized on a statement by Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, to Ms Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly within you”.
Josh Hawley, the Republican from Missouri, referred to those 2017 remarks, saying that they incorporated the “terminology of anti-Catholic bigotry”.
Republicans have pushed forward with the hearings despite an outbreak of coronavirus at the White House and among a trio of Republican senators. One of the senators, Mike Lee, appeared in person on Monday despite testing positive for coronavirus 10 days ago.
Mr Graham said Mr Lee had been cleared by his doctor. “I doubt if there’s any room in the country that’s been given more attention and detail to make sure it’s CDC compliant,” Mr Graham added.
Thom Tillis, another Republican Senate judiciary committee member who had tested positive for coronavirus, appeared via video.
Committee members will pose questions to Ms Barrett during the second day of hearings starting on Tuesday.