Trump’s supreme court nominee says she will be fair, but evades abortion questions

Amy Coney Barrett tells hearing she is not hostile to the Obamacare law and sidesteps repeated questions on Roe vs Wade

US supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett prepares to testify during the second day of her confirmation hearing in Washington, DC, the US, October 13 2020. Picture: TOM WILLIAMS/REUTERS
US supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett prepares to testify during the second day of her confirmation hearing in Washington, DC, the US, October 13 2020. Picture: TOM WILLIAMS/REUTERS

President Donald Trump's supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett said on Tuesday at her US Senate confirmation hearing she is not hostile to the Obamacare law, as Democrats have suggested, and declined to specify whether she believes landmark rulings legalising abortion and gay marriage were properly decided.

Barrett, a conservative federal appellate judge, answered questions from senators for the first time on the second day of her judiciary committee confirmation hearing. It gave Barrett a chance to respond to Democrats who have opposed her because of her potential as a justice to undermine the 2010 health-care law and its protection for patients with pre-existing conditions.

Trump has asked the Senate to confirm Barrett before the November 3 election in which he is seeking a second term in office.

Barrett declined to say if she would step aside from any election-related cases that reach the court. The Republican president has said he expects the supreme court to decide the election's outcome as he faces Democratic challenger Joe Biden. Barrett said no-one at the White House sought a commitment from her on how she would rule on that or any issue.

It would be a gross violation of judicial independence for me to make any such commitment or for me to be asked about that case

“It would be a gross violation of judicial independence for me to make any such commitment or for me to be asked about that case,” Barrett told the committee of possible election cases.

Barrett declined to say whether she would consider stepping aside, as Democrats have requested, from an Obamacare case due to be argued at the court a week after election day in which Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate the law formally called the Affordable Care Act.

Barrett noted that the new case centres on a different legal issue than two previous supreme court rulings that upheld Obamacare, which she had criticised. Barrett declined to say how she would approach the new case, but said, “I am not hostile to the [Obamacare].”

Barrett also said the White House did not seek her assurance that she would vote to strike down the law.

“Absolutely not. I was never asked — and if I had, that would have been a short conversation,” Barrett said.

The health-care act is Democratic former President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy achievement and has enabled millions of Americans to obtain medical coverage. Democrats have blasted Trump for trying to kill Obamacare amid a deadly pandemic.

Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority, making Barrett's confirmation a virtual certainty. If confirmed, Barrett would give conservatives a 6-3 Supreme Court majority. She is Trump's third supreme court appointment.

Abortion ruling

Like other Supreme Court nominees before her, Barrett opted to sidestep some questions on some matters that could come before the court.

Abortion rights advocates have expressed concern that Barrett would vote to overturn the 1973 ruling called Roe vs Wade that legalised abortion nationwide. Asked about that ruling, Barrett said she would consider the various factors usually applied when justices weigh whether to overturn a precedent.

“I promise to do that for any issue that comes up, abortion or anything else. I'll follow the law,” Barrett said.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel's top Democrat, asked Barrett whether she agreed with her mentor, the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia, that Roe vs Wade can was wrongly decided and should be overturned.

After Barrett declined to answer, Feinstein told her: “So on something that is really a major cause with major effects on over half of the population of this country — who are women, after all — it's distressing not to get a straight answer.”

Religious conservatives are hoping the supreme court will overturn Roe vs Wade.

Religious conservatives

Republican committee chair Lindsey Graham, asked Barrett, a devout Catholic and a favourite of religious conservatives, whether she could set aside her religious beliefs in making decisions as a justice.

“I can,” Barrett said, adding that she expected that as a nominee her religious faith would be “caricatured”.

During her 2017 confirmation hearing after Trump nominated her to her current post on the Chicago-based Circuit Court of Appeals, Feinstein told Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly in you” — a comment that some Republicans said represented antireligious bigotry.

Questioned by Feinstein, Barrett declined to say whether she agreed with Scalia that the 2015 supreme court ruling called Obergefell vs Hodges legalising gay marriage nationwide was wrongly decided.

“I have no agenda and I do want to be clear that I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and I would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference,” Barrett said.

Asked about George Floyd, a black man killed by police in Minneapolis in May in an incident that triggered widespread protests, Barrett said the issue was “very, very personal for my family” because of her seven children, two — adopted from Haiti — are black. Barrett said she and one of her daughters, Vivian, cried together after seeing the video.

“It's a difficult one for us like it is for Americans all over the country,” Barrett said.

Barrett said “racism persists” in the US but declined to give her view on whether it is systemic or how it should be addressed.

Barrett was nominated to a lifetime post on the court on September 26 by Trump to replace the late liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The four-day confirmation hearing is a key step before a full Senate vote by the end of October on Barrett's confirmation.

Reuters


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