WASHINGTON – Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett fought back Tuesday against caricatures that she is a committed advocate for conservative causes chosen by President Donald Trump to do his bidding on issues ranging from abortion to the Affordable Care Act.
In a marathon session before the Senate Judiciary Committee just three weeks from Election Day, Barrett was put on the defensive by Democrats charging that she was picked because of her views on abortion, gun rights, same-sex marriage and particularly the health care law headed to the high court for the third time next month.
“That is their stated objective and plan. Why not take them at their word?” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said in reference to Republicans and special-interest groups backing Barrett’s nomination.
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Barrett strived to show her independence from the president and conservative forces that have joined together in hopes of a speedy confirmation, wedged tightly between Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and an election that Trump has made clear could be challenged in court.
“I certainly hope that all members of the committee have more confidence in my integrity than to think that I would allow myself to be used as a pawn to decide the election for the American people,” Barrett said.
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But several Democrats implied just that. They urged Barrett to pledge that if confirmed, she would recuse herself both from cases involving the election and from the challenge to the Affordable Care Act.
“Republicans are scrambling to confirm this nominee as fast as possible because they need one more Trump judge on the bench before Nov. 10 to win and strike down the Affordable Care Act,” Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, a committee member, said as the hearing stretched past dinner time. “This is happening.”
Time and again in response, Barrett indicated that she came to the hearing with an agenda: to assure senators she has no agenda.
“Judges cannot just wake up one day and say: ‘I have an agenda. I like guns. I hate abortion,’ and walk in like a royal queen and impose their will on the world,” she said.
Despite efforts by Democrats to paint her as a hard-right conservative, Barrett refused to be pinned down on such hot-button issues as race and LGBTQ rights. When the subject of racial justice came up, she recounted how she wept with one of her daughters, who is Black and adopted from Haiti, over the death of George Floyd while being pinned down by police in Minneapolis.
“Racism persists in our country,” she said, later condemning white supremacy and acknowledging that there is implicit bias in the criminal justice system. But she said fixing racism is a question for the other branches of government to handle.
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And while she indicated that the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision upholding same-sex marriage was unlikely to be overruled, she angered the LGBTQ community by referring to “sexual preference” rather than “sexual orientation.” Later she apologized for using “a term that would cause any offense in the LGBTQ community.”
Throughout what would become a 12-hour day, including long-winded statements from senators during which Barrett sat stone-faced, the 48-year-old federal appeals court judge and law school professor from Indiana sought to define herself as someone who puts personal views aside and addresses legal issues with an open mind.
“If I’m confirmed, you would not be getting Justice Scalia, you would be getting Justice Barrett,” she said in reference to her more outspoken mentor, the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.
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“I have made no commitment to anyone, not in the Senate, not over at the White House, about how I would decide any case,” she said.
Democrats who have complained about the timing and circumstances of the nomination, which could produce a 6-3 conservative majority on the court for decades to come, seemed powerless to stop it. Most of their questions concerned how Barrett would rule on the court – not whether she would get there.
Much of the questioning concerned three central issues that the Supreme Court deals with frequently: abortion, gun control and health care.
On abortion, Barrett said she understood why Democrats wanted to know her views on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion nationwide, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the right in 1992.
“I have no agenda to try and overrule Casey,” she said. “I have an agenda to stick to the rule of law and decide cases as they come.”
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She was put on the defensive about newspaper ads opposing abortion that included her name from petition drives, which she did not disclose to the panel initially. She said she did not recall them and did not consider them to be responsive to the committee’s questionnaire.
“I assure you that I was not trying to hide it from you,” Barrett said.
On guns, she defended her dissent in a case on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in which she argued that nonviolent felons should retain their right to own firearms.
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Democrats sought to compare that assertion with a Florida legal dispute over felons’ right to vote, forcing Barrett to separate the “individual” right to gun ownership from the “civic” right to vote. The distinction did not convince Democrats who are concerned about a rash of voting rights cases that could help determine the outcome of next month’s elections.
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And on health care, the issue Democrats have chosen to highlight above all others, Barrett said her prior criticisms of the Supreme Court’s rulings upholding the Affordable Care Act do not apply to the case set for oral argument next month.
In 2012, the court was asked to decide if the entire law was unconstitutional. This time, it’s about whether a tax on those who refuse to buy insurance can be severed from the law following action by Congress to eliminate it.
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Asked if she would recuse herself from that case given her criticism of the earlier ruling, Barrett said it’s “a legal issue” that she would discuss with her colleagues, not “a question that I could answer in the abstract.”
“I’m not here on a mission to destroy the Affordable Care Act,” she said. As for whether she was questioned before her nomination on how she would rule in the upcoming case, she said, “I was never asked, and if I had been, that would have been a short conversation.”
Contributing: Nicholas Wu, Ledyard King, Christal Hayes and Savannah Behrmann
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett strives to show independence from White House, Republicans