Sen. Lindsey Graham acknowledged Monday morning what the next four days would likely look like in the Judiciary Committee's hearing chamber.
“This is going to be a long, contentious week,” he said, opening the confirmation proceedings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who sat before the assembled senators in a black face mask.
Touching on the Democratic rancor set kicked up by President Donald Trump's push to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Graham went on to say: “To the extent possible, let’s make it respectful, let’s make it challenging."
"Let’s remember," he said, "the world is watching.”
And with that, Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the Senate began making their case for — and against — nominating Barrett as the ninth justice on the bench.
Barrett, a 48-year-old federal appeals court judge widely viewed as a conservative jurist, was nominated by President Trump following Ginsburg’s death last month.
This week's confirmation hearings, including a day of opening statements and several days of questioning by the 22 committee-members, will likely dominate headlines ahead of what seems largely a foregone conclusion: Republicans almost certainly have the votes needed, despite widespread criticism they are hypocritical for pushing forward with Barrett's confirmation just before election (and polling showing voters would prefer to wait).
If appointed, Barrett could cement a six-to-three conservative majority on the court for years to come, with potentially sweeping influence over decisions about healthcare, abortion access and other issues.
In particular, the Supreme Court will soon hear a case about the Affordable Care Act, which Trump has long pushed to dismantle.
It was against this backdrop that Sen. Graham began the week's hearings — and his colleagues soon advanced two wildly different views of the nominee: Republicans lauded her personal background and her legal credentials while Democrats tried to pull the focus to Trump's most unpopular policy positions and how Barrett may aid him.
Who Is Amy Coney Barrett?
Barrett is a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge from South Bend, Indiana, where she previously taught at the University of Notre Dame's Law School for 15 years.
She graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1994, which would make her the only justice on the bench who did not graduate from an Ivy League school.
A mother of seven, Barrett is married to private attorney Jesse Barrett and is a devoted Catholic. (Her participation in the conservative group People of Praise has also drawn notice.)
If confirmed, she would be the youngest justice on the bench, the fifth woman ever on the court and the only mother of school-age children.
She told Congress in a 2017 that “my personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear in the discharge of my duties as a judge,” according to the Associated Press.
Nonetheless, in the lead-up to the confirmation hearings Republicans said Barrett might unfairly be subject to questions about her faith in what they called anti-Catholic discrimination. On Monday, however, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee focused almost entirely on arguments about the process, healthcare and other political issues.
How to Watch the Hearings
Most major networks will air portions of the Supreme Court hearings live this week, while C-SPAN and news networks will stream the hearings in full online.
How Long Will the Hearings Last?
The judiciary hearings on Barrett’s nomination are scheduled to last through Thursday, with questions from the senators taking up Tuesday and Wednesday and a committee vote expected on Oct. 22, Graham has said.
“There's nothing unconstitutional about this process. This is a vacancy that's occurred through a tragic loss of a great woman, and we're going to fill that vacancy with another great woman,” he said. “The bottom line here is that the Senate is doing its duty constitutionally.”
A final vote of the entire Senate would then come at the end of the month, days before the Nov. 3 election between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Because Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, they also hold a majority in the Judiciary Committee and enough Senators have previously made clear they were backing Barrett to make her confirmation nearly certain, barring some unforeseen twist.
In addition to their own comments, lawmakers will also hear an opening statement from Barrett on Monday afternoon, in which she plans to emphasize her family background, education and experience as a judge.
"As I said when I was nominated to serve as a justice, I am used to being in a group of nine — my family," she will say, according to a draft of her remarks circulated in advance to reporters. "Nothing is more important to me, and I am so proud to have them behind me."
"Courts have a vital responsibility to enforce the rule of law, which is critical to a free society. But courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life," Barrett will say, according to her prepared statement. "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."
“I believe deeply in the rule of law and the place of the Supreme Court in our nation," Barrett plans to say. "I believe Americans of all backgrounds deserve an independent Supreme Court that interprets our Constitution and laws as they are written."
What to Watch For
Barrett is seen as a social conservative, whom Democratic congressional leaders worry may tilt the court further to the right, threatening to overturn such laws as the Affordable Care Act and the decision Roe v. Wade, which protected a woman's right to have an abortion.
Ahead of what is expected to be a tough week of questioning, Democratic lawmakers already began firing off their criticisms on Monday, side-stepping Republican arguments that the GOP was merely exercising its rightful power from voters and instead honing in on vulnerabilities like the push to get rid of the ACA.
"This well could mean that if Judge Barrett is confirmed, Americans stand to lose the benefits that the ACA provides,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said in her opening statement.
The Republican-controlled Senate had blocked then-President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, in the spring of 2016 by claiming the nomination came too close to that year's election.
But the Republican support for Barrett fueled criticisms they were hypocritical, though conservatives now argue their position applies only when the Senate and White House are held by opposing parties.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in his opening statement Monday that Democrats were baselessly politicizing the Supreme Court (despite a long history of justices' consequential roles in some of the country's signature policy decisions, such as desegregating schools and legalizing same-sex marriage).
“These tactics of creating fear and uncertainty and doubt, these tactics that result in relentless protests outside of the one branch of government that isn’t political astound me, they dismay me, they disappoint me. They reflect that fact that we have allowed for the politicization of the one branch of the federal government that is not political,” Lee said.
Addressing Barrett, he said, "I will object anytime anyone tries to attribute to you a policy position and hold you to that. You’re not a policymaker, you’re a judge. That’s what we’re here to discuss.”
How Has COVID-19 Impacted the Hearings?
As with most things in 2020, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic made its presence known at the Senate on Monday. Lawmakers largely wore masks, unless they were speaking, as did Barrett and her family.
The hearings come about two weeks after health experts suspect a "super-spreader" event broke out at the White House on Sept. 26 during Barrett's formal nomination ceremony.
Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, handfuls of the president's advisers and at least two GOP senators tested positive for the virus in the days afterwards, according to the New York Times. (The president had also been in debate prep with advisers who tested positive; none of them wore masks, according to attendee Chris Christie, who was hospitalized with the virus.)
Lee — one of the two Republican lawmakers who later tested positive — appeared on the Senate floor Monday with his colleagues and he wore a mask after speaking. A doctor had cleared his attendance.
Other lawmakers, including North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, likewise infected, teleconferenced in Monday to make their opening statements.
Graham and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, however, both declined to be tested for the virus in advance of Monday’s hearing in what critics said was willful ignorance to avoid any delays if they were positive.
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican on the committee, had said testing every lawmaker there “would be smart.”
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