WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett starts Monday amid a very 2020 backdrop: Beset by COVID-19, sharply divided along political lines, conducted with the help of remote videoconferencing, with sweeping policies on health care, abortion and more hanging in the balance.
Senate Republicans will press to swiftly confirm the 48-year-old federal appeals court judge and former law professor before the Nov. 3 presidential election. That would establish a 6-3 majority for the court’s conservative wing and solidify that tilt for what could be decades.
President Donald Trump has urged the Senate to make it a priority over another coronavirus relief bill, even as he is isolated in the White House and off the campaign trail after his hospitalization for COVID-19, which he might have contracted at a Rose Garden announcement for Barrett’s nomination on Sept. 26.
“It will be fast and easy!” Trump tweeted about Barrett’s confirmation. It was in response to an author’s suggestion that the Barrett confirmation battle would be “bloody” because Barrett would “help pick the next president” — an allusion to the president’s apparent plan to have Barrett on the bench in time to rule on any contested election.
Barrett will likely get a question or two related to the pandemic, and her role in the Rose Garden announcement ceremony that some point to as a possible superspreader event for the coronavirus.
Barring any more 2020-esque twists and surprises, the four-day hearing could play out similarly to how it did for Trump’s previous two Supreme Court appointees.
Opening statements will be Monday, and the questioning will start Tuesday. Here’s what to expect.
MAKING IT PERSONAL
Republicans will focus on Barrett’s conservative judicial philosophy as well as her personal story, including her family and some of the educational and geographic diversity her appointment would bring to the Supreme Court.
Trump picked Barrett to fill the seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a trailblazing women’s rights advocate before her 27 years on the high court and 13 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Barrett graduated first in her class at Notre Dame Law School and was a professor who focused on statutory interpretation and judicial precedents.
If confirmed, Barrett would be the only justice with a degree from a law school other than Harvard or Yale, and she would bring a perspective of being raised in the South and living in the Midwest. She is a mother of seven children ranging in age from 8 to 19, including one who has special needs and two adopted from Haiti, and she would become the first mother of school-age children to serve as a justice.
Republicans have moved to make her Catholic faith a centerpiece of the confirmation debate, repeatedly warning Democrats against questioning whether it would harm her ability to be fair. Some committee Democrats asked about that during her confirmation process in 2017 to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and some have indicated they would steer clear of religion this time.
On her judicial approach, Barrett laid it out plainly in the Rose Garden ceremony when she linked her approach to the law to that of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative icon who died in 2016. Barrett once clerked for Scalia at the Supreme Court.
“His judicial philosophy is mine too,” she said. “A judge must apply the law as written. Judges are not policymakers, and they must be resolute in setting aside any policy views they might hold.”
BIG ISSUES, RECENT DECISIONS
The committee’s Democrats will highlight expectations of what that judicial philosophy would mean for how she would rule on big issues, particularly health care, abortion rights and immigration.
In the past week, Democrats have voiced concerns that she would side with the Trump administration and a coalition of Republican-led states that have asked the Supreme Court to strike down the 2010 health care law that expanded insurance coverage to more than 20 million people, including popular provisions such as required coverage of preexisting medical conditions.
The Supreme Court hears oral argument on that case Nov. 10, and Democrats say Barrett’s academic article in 2017 that criticized Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s opinion in the case, which was the deciding vote to uphold the health care law in 2012, indicates she would be inclined to strike down the law.
Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, a committee member, said on a press call this week that Barrett would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that established a constitutional right to abortion.
Barrett, like other Supreme Court nominees before her, is likely to deflect questions about such topics by saying that they may come up before her if she is confirmed. She also is likely to decline to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the Supreme Court’s prior decisions.
Derek Muller, a University of Iowa law professor and former student of Barrett’s, said the judge has a calm professional demeanor and will go into the confirmation hearing with both eyes open about how rough such hearings can be for the nominee.
“She’ll explain the cases and explain why she came out the way she did, and she’s already thought through them and defended them,” Muller said.
“It’s, I think, not going to be a situation where it will be easy to knock her off her balance or get her angry. I think she’s going to take all the questions in stride and, I think, project as much of that typical calm exterior as she can in front of millions of Americans.”