US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett has said Americans “deserve an independent Supreme Court that interprets our Constitution and laws as they are written”.
Her comments encapsulated her conservative approach to the law that has Republicans excited about the prospect of her taking the place of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before election day.
Ms Barrett spoke about her judicial philosophy, her experience and her large family at the end of the first day of her fast-tracked confirmation hearings that Senate Democrats are using to try and brand her a threat to Americans’ health care during the coronavirus pandemic.
After sitting in silence through nearly four hours of opening statements from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the 48-year-old federal appeals court judge laid out her approach to the bench, which she has likened to that of her conservative mentor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
“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,” Ms Barrett said in a statement she delivered after removing the protective mask she wore most of the day.
“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.”
She told senators that she is “forever grateful” for Ms Ginsburg’s trailblazing path as a woman on the court.
Senator Kamala Harris, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, said the court is “often the last refuge for equal justice” and Ms Barrett’s nomination puts in jeopardy everything Ms Ginsburg fought to protect.
Giving evidence from her office because of the pandemic, Ms Harris said that not only health care but voting rights, workers’ rights, abortion rights and the very idea of justice are at stake.
Republicans called Ms Barrett a thoughtful judge with impeccable credentials.
Barring a dramatic development, Republicans appear to have the votes to confirm her to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.
If she is confirmed quickly, she could be on the court when it hears the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act, a week after the election.
One after another, Democrats sought to tie her nomination to the upcoming court case.
“Health care coverage for millions of Americans is at stake with this nomination,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s senior Democrat.
The Trump administration wants the court to strike down the entire law popularly known as Obamacare on November 10.
Ms Barrett has criticised the court’s two earlier major rulings supporting the law.
Among Republicans, Senator Chuck Grassley dismissed warnings Ms Barrett will undo the Obama-era healthcare law as “outrageous”.
President Donald Trump himself seemed to be watching, tweeting several times about the hearing.
In one message, he tweeted that he’d have a “far better” health care plan, with lower costs and protections for pre-existing conditions.
Republicans also warned against making Ms Barrett’s Catholicism an issue in the confirmation debate, especially in regard to her stance on abortion, with Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri lambasting what he called a “pattern and practice of religious bigotry” by Democrats.
However, Democratic senators made clear in advance of the hearing that they did not plan to question the judge on the specifics of her religious faith.
Democratic presidential nominee Mr Biden, also a practising Catholic, told reporters ahead of a campaign trip to Ohio that he does not think “there’s any question about her faith”.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, meeting on a federal holiday, kicked off four days of statements and evidence in an environment that has been altered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Some senators were taking part remotely, and the hearing room itself was arranged with health concerns in mind.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, opened the hearing acknowledging “the Covid problem in America is real”.
But he said: “We do have a country that needs to move forward safely.”
Mr Graham acknowledged the obvious: “This is going to be a long, contentious week.”
Protesters rallied outside the Senate buildings with the hearing room largely closed to the public.
Capitol Police said 22 people were arrested and charged on suspicion of crowding, obstructing or other violations.
Republicans are moving at a breakneck pace to seat Ms Barrett before the November 3 election to secure Trump’s pick, which would put her on the bench for any election-related challenges.
Democrats are trying in vain to delay the fast-track confirmation by raising fresh concerns about the safety of meeting during the pandemic after two Republican senators on the panel tested positive for coronavirus.
Mr Trump chose Ms Barrett after the death last month of Ms Ginsburg, much admired by liberals.
It is the opportunity to entrench a conservative majority on the court for years to come with his third justice.
Faith and family punctuated her evidence, and she said she would bring “a few new perspectives” as the first mother of school-age children on the nine-member court.
Ms Barrett said she uses her children as a test when deciding cases, asking herself how she would view the decision if one of her seven children were the party she 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?” she said.
The hearing followed a White House event announcing her nomination just over two weeks ago, in which most of the audience did not wear masks.
The event has been labelled a “superspreader” for coronavirus.
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