U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Tuesday declined to answer a range of questions from senators on how she might rule on legal disputes she would face if confirmed to fill a crucial vacancy on the country’s highest court. Barrett, however, said she would not let her personal and religious views determine how she would decide cases.
“I have no agenda,” Barrett said as the Senate Judiciary Committee opened two days of questioning on her lifetime appointment by President Donald Trump to the nine-member court. “I’ll follow the law.”
Barrett, in initial queries from two Republicans, the panel chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, and two Democrats, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy, declined to say how she might rule on the court’s 1973 legalization of abortions in the United States, gun ownership rights sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution and whether, in a case to be heard by the court next month, the country’s national health care law should remain in effect.
Legal disputes on presidential election
She also rebuffed a question on whether she would recuse herself, if she is quickly confirmed by the Senate, from considering any legal disputes arising from the Nov. 3 national election. Trump is trying to win a second four-year term in the White House and faces Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump has assailed mass balloting by mail and said he wants the court to help decide the election. The president, trailing Biden in national polls, says he wants Barrett confirmed to avoid a 4-4 stalemate on contested election issues.
Barrett said she has had no conversations with Trump or his staff “on how I would rule” on election disputes. She said it would have been unethical for her as a sitting federal appellate court judge to have such a discussion.
The 48-year-old Barrett is a favorite of U.S. conservatives looking to give the court a decided 6-3 conservative majority for decades to come. She has cited the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom she served as a law clerk two decades ago, as her philosophical mentor, for his strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as written two centuries ago rather than reinterpreting it to current life in the U.S.
Barrett said that if she is confirmed as the fifth woman ever to serve on the court, “You would be getting a Justice Barrett, not a Justice Scalia.”
Replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg
If confirmed, Barrett would replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal icon who died last month at 87. Democratic critics fear that Barrett would vote to undo many of the reforms championed by Ginsburg, including abortion rights and the right for gays to marry and be treated equally in American society.
Graham called Barrett’s selection “one of the greatest picks President Trump could make.” He predicted Monday that the committee's 12 Republicans will all vote in favor of Barrett's nomination with all 10 Democrats opposed. Republican leaders say they have enough votes in the full Senate to confirm her nomination.
Gun ownership, abortion
Barrett assured Graham that despite her family owning a gun, she could fairly “decide such a case” calling for tighter restrictions on gun ownership sanctioned by the Constitution’s Second Amendment.
Barrett said that even as the court has ruled that Americans have a personal right to own a gun, the ruling “leaves room for gun regulation. I promise I would come to that with an open mind. Any issue should be decided by the facts of the case.”
Similarly, Barrett said as an appellate court judge she has set aside her devout Catholic beliefs to issue rulings according to U.S. law and could do so again on the Supreme Court.
But she made no promises on how she might rule on abortion, which the Catholic Church opposes.
She said high court precedent from long ago rulings is “presumptively controlling,” and that some decisions fall into the “super precedent” category, such as the 1954 decision banning school segregation by races as unequal treatment of Blacks and unconstitutional.
Scalia dissented against abortion rights, but Barrett declined to say whether she also thinks the legality of abortion was wrongly decided.
“It would be wrong for me as a sitting judge to say,” Barrett told Feinstein. “I have to decide cases as they come before me. I can’t pre-commit to judge a case in any way. I’ll follow the law.”
At another point in Tuesday’s questioning, Barrett told Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, “I’m 100% committed to judicial independence.”
But Klobuchar said she fears that a Justice Barrett “would be the polar opposite” of Ginsburg in the way she votes on key cases. “That’s what concerns me,” Klobuchar said.
30 minutes of questions per Senator
The 22 Judiciary panel lawmakers each had 30 minutes to question Barrett on Tuesday before a second round of questions set for Wednesday. Graham is planning an initial vote for Thursday on her nomination.
That would allow for final approval late next week and a vote by the full Republican-majority Senate before the end of the month, just days ahead of the presidential and congressional elections.
The confirmation hearings opened Monday with Barrett telling senators that courts “should not try” to make policy and should leave that to American presidents and Congress.
WATCH: Day 1 of hearing
Barrett laid out a strict interpretation of the high court’s role, saying it is "not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life.”
Feinstein immediately signaled that the minority Democrats plan to sharply question Barrett about one major policy dispute — her view that a 2012 Supreme Court decision upholding the legality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a national health care law affecting millions of Americans, was wrongly decided.
The court is considering a new challenge to the ACA on Nov. 10, by which time Barrett could be a justice on the court, deciding whether to overturn the statute or allowing it to stand.
Feinstein noted that before Trump named Barrett to a federal appellate court judgeship in 2017, she wrote a law review article contending that Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote upholding the health care law with what she claimed was contorted reasoning so that the law would remain in effect.
Barrett claimed that Roberts pushed the interpretation of the law “beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute.”
The question in the new case is whether the abolition of a tax on people who refused to buy health insurance was enough to void the whole law, as Trump and his administration contend. Again, however, Barrett declined to offer a view on a case on which she might have to rule.
In nominating Barrett, Trump hopes to cement a 6-3 conservative majority on the court before Election Day. Biden says that either he or Trump should make the Supreme Court appointment after the inauguration of one of them in January.
More than 10 million voters have cast early ballots in the presidential election. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 44% of registered voters say the Senate should hold hearings and vote on Barrett’s nomination, while 52% say the nomination should be left to the winner of the presidential election and a Senate vote next year.