In a history-making moment, with some members attending virtually and others in person, the Senate Judiciary Committee will take up the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett this morning, just 22 days before the country votes in the 2020 presidential election.It will be a hearing dominated, in many ways, by the coronavirus pandemic that is now in its eighth month. Two Republican senators, Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, may be unable to attend in person because they have tested positive for COVID-19, and several Democrats—including Senator Kamala Harris, the running mate of Joe Biden—are indicating that they will participate remotely because of their concerns about the virus that has so far killed more than 210,000 Americans.“Due to Judiciary Committee Republicans’ refusal to take common-sense steps to protect members, aides, Capitol complex workers, and members of the media, Senator Harris plans to participate in this week’s hearings remotely from her Senate office in the Hart building,” a spokesperson for Harris said in a statement issued on Sunday.
Earlier, Harris had been one of several Democratic senators urging that the hearings be delayed because of the pandemic, saying that a postponement was necessary “to ensure that we don’t risk the health and safety of fellow Senators, Senate staff, other Senate employees, as well as Judge Barrett and her family.” The Democrats added, “We need not proceed in such a reckless and blind fashion.” The committee is led by South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, who, in a controversial move, refused to take a coronavirus test before his debate this weekend against his Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison, causing the debate to be canceled and replaced by separate interviews with the two candidates. There has been widespread speculation that Graham refused to take the test because if it came back positive, it could delay the Judiciary hearings and imperil his plans to confirm Barrett before November 3.
Graham has said he intends to bring the confirmation of Barrett to the Senate floor by October 22.
Monday’s session, which will begin at 9 a.m., will kick off with opening statements by Graham and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the ranking member of the committee. Then each of the other 20 senators on the panel will be given 10 minutes for a statement. (Besides Tillis and Graham, two other Republican senators—John Cornyn of Texas and Joni Ernst—are currently involved in tough reelection battles, which could make an interesting subplot to the hearings.) The committee members will be followed by senators Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Michael Braun (R-Indiana) and Patricia O’Hara, a former dean of Notre Dame Law School, which Barrett both graduated from and later taught at. Each will give a five-minute speech about Barrett, testifying to her fitness for the nation’s highest court.
Barrett will then be sworn in to testify and give her opening statement.
On Sunday, Barrett, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, released the text of her opening statement. In it, she talks at length about her seven children—describing each in specific detail—and pays a brief tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose seat she was controversially named to fill by President Trump just eight days after the justice’s death. “I have been nominated to fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat, but no one will ever take her place,” the judge is expected to say. “I will be forever grateful for the path she marked and the life she led.”
But she is actually the spiritual heir to the late justice Antonin Scalia, a deeply conservative judge whom she said “taught me more than just law; he was devoted to his family, resolute in his beliefs, and fearless of criticism” and whose judicial philosophy she says she intends to follow if confirmed to the court. “A judge must apply the law as written, not as the judge wishes it were,” her statement reads. “Sometimes that approach meant reaching results that he did not like. But as he put it in one of his best-known opinions, that is what it means to say we have a government of laws, not of men.”
As Democrats have pointed out over the past few weeks, there could be an immediate impact if Barrett is confirmed by the timetable set by Graham. One week after the election, the Court will hear a challenge to the Affordable Care Act. Based on her previous writings, Barrett is expected to offer the deciding vote to strike that law down. That would end the guarantee of medical care for millions of Americans, particularly those with preexisting conditions, in the middle of the country’s worst health crisis in more than a century.
The hearings will be aired live on the major news and cable networks. It will also be live-streamed on the committee’s website.