A deeply divided Senate Judiciary Committee will kick off four days of contentious confirmation hearings on Monday for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, drawing battle lines that could reverberate through the election.
Democrats will arrive ready to go on the offensive, portraying Judge Barrett’s nomination as an election-season power grab by Mr. Trump and Republicans. They will characterize her as a conservative ideologue who would overturn the Affordable Care Act, invalidate abortion rights and side with the president in any legal disputes arising from the Nov. 3 election.
Republicans will try to deflect those charges and redirect attention toward Judge Barrett’s sterling résumé and compelling personal story. But their goal above all else is speed — pushing through the confirmation before Election Day — and it appears that they have the votes to install her and cement a 6-to-3 conservative majority on the court before the end of October.
Monday’s hearing will begin at 9 a.m., and is expected to take most of the day as each member of the Judiciary Committee gets 10 minutes to deliver an opening statement. Judge Barrett will be the last to speak, and is expected to give a short, mostly biographical statement before taking questions later in the week.
Here’s what to expect.
Republicans and Democrats will compete to define Judge Barrett.
Though fights over Supreme Court nominees have become increasingly bitter in recent years, no modern confirmation battle has played out so close to a major presidential election. That contest, and the race for control of the Senate, will be omnipresent in the hearings, shaping the strategies of both parties.
Republicans who are trailing in the polls hope to use the confirmation fight to stoke enthusiasm among their base, but also coax back independent voters, especially women, who are abandoning the party in droves. To that end, they plan to largely bypass the policy implications of the court’s rightward tilt in favor of Judge Barrett’s personal story, stressing her legal expertise as an appeals court judge and Notre Dame law professor and her experience as a working mother of seven.
They also want to try to goad Democrats into questioning Judge Barrett’s impartiality based on her Catholic faith, as they did during a 2017 hearing on her nomination for an appeals court seat. Republicans believe if Democrats take the bait, they could stir up a political backlash like the one that helped motivate their base during the 2018 confirmation battle over Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Democrats will take the inverse approach. They will attempt to hammer Republicans on what Judge Barrett’s confirmation could mean for a series of popular policies and potent campaign-trail issues, like the health care law, abortion rights and same-sex marriage. They will point to Judge Barrett’s record to argue she could undermine all three if confirmed.
Judge Barrett will stress her biography and the influence of Justice Antonin Scalia.
At the end of the day, Judge Barrett will have a chance to reintroduce herself uninterrupted by partisan bickering, and she intends to highlight her commitment to family and the legal philosophy championed by Antonin Scalia, the justice who died in 2016 and for whom she clerked.
According to opening remarks circulated by the White House on Sunday, Judge Barrett plans to spend ample time discussing her love of family — describing each of her seven children individually — her upbringing as a Catholic in New Orleans, and her experiences as a student, clerk and then law professor at Notre Dame. She will specifically pay tribute to two women — Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who broke the Supreme Court’s glass ceiling.
“I have been nominated to fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat, but no one will ever take her place,” she plans to say. “I will be forever grateful for the path she marked and the life she led.”
But her judicial philosophy could not be more opposite from that of the woman whose seat she intends to fill. Like Justice Scalia, Judge Barrett is described as a textualist and originalist. That means she prefers to interpret the plain words of a legal statute over the intent of the lawmakers and to read the Constitution based on the understanding of its framers.
“Courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life,” Judge Barrett plans to say. “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.”
The coronavirus pandemic will shape the proceeding.
Judge Barrett’s confirmation hearing will look unlike any other in modern history, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans are insisting on proceeding notwithstanding a virus outbreak in Washington that appears to be linked to the crowded White House ceremony two weeks ago where Mr. Trump introduced Judge Barrett as his nominee. The president and most other attendees at the gathering were maskless. Mr. Trump has since tested positive for the virus, as have several other guests.
At least two Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee, Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, also tested positive after attending the event. They are expected to participate in the hearings, which will be led by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the Judiciary Committee chairman, who has refused to be retested. Democrats called for a postponement, but were rebuffed.
The proceedings will play out partially by video to allow senators who may be sick or worried about infection to participate remotely. No members of the public — including protesters whose confrontational style set the tone for other confirmation fights — will be allowed in the hearing room, which will be sparsely populated with senators and spectators.
Should any more Republican senators fall ill, it could complicate Judge Barrett’s chances of confirmation. With two members of the party, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, already opposed to proceeding before Election Day, Republicans, who control the Senate by a 53-to-47 majority, can afford to lose only one more vote.
What happens next?
After Monday’s opening statements, senators will dive into multiple, extended rounds of questioning with Judge Barrett on Tuesday and Wednesday. Though the format will be different — and there could be some elements of surprise — do not expect to learn much about Judge Barrett’s specific legal views on the most politically sensitive matters that could come before the court. Like earlier nominees, she is expected to refuse to answer questions that might compromise her ability to rule impartially on future cases.
On Thursday, the committee will convene again to hear from a panel of outside witnesses testifying in favor of and opposition to Judge Barrett’s confirmation. Afterward, it will immediately begin deliberating over whether to recommend that she be confirmed. The debate will be fierce and partisan, but under the rules, Democrats will insist the panel wait a week to vote on her nomination.
As of now, the Judiciary Committee plans to reconvene on Oct. 22 to approve the nomination. If all members of the panel are present, Republicans would have a clear majority and easily win the vote. But if any Republican lawmakers were unable to attend, they could quickly find themselves at a standstill.
If approved, the nomination would then go to the full Senate for consideration. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has not said when he will schedule a final vote, but it is expected to occur early the week of Oct. 26, in time for senators to race home for one final week of campaigning before the election.