Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Confirmation Hearings

Jack Matthews Staff Writer

Last week marked the beginning of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation process, with several days of hearings in front of the 22-member bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee. These hearings come almost three weeks after President Trump announced his intention to nominate Barrett, who has served on the U.S. Appeals Court for the Seventh Circuit since 2017. 

The timing of the nomination makes these hearings especially unusual; Justices have been confirmed in fewer days than Barrett, but no Justice has ever been confirmed so close to a general election. 

The ongoing pandemic has also changed the landscape of the hearings. Two Republican senators, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah, both tested positive for coronavirus prior to the start of the hearings. Lee had been cleared by doctors and was present, in-person all four days. Tillis attended Monday’s hearing virtually but was cleared by his doctor to be present in person starting Tuesday. Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee, chose to attend each session of the hearings virtually, citing coronavirus concerns. 

Monday’s hearing began with 10-minute opening statements from each senator, giving both parties an opportunity to demonstrate how they intended to approach the week. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, opened the hearing by honoring the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, before moving on to an explanation of why the Republicans have moved forward with the process. Though he conceded that no Justice has ever been confirmed in an election year any later than July, he did insist that there was “nothing unconstitutional about this process.”

Senator Diane Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, argued Barrett will vote to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, the landmark health insurance bill passed under the Obama administration that has expanded healthcare coverage to millions of Americans. 

For almost five hours, the day played out in a similar fashion, with Democrats challenging the legitimacy of the hearings and arguing that Barrett’s confirmation would allow the Court’s conservative majority to overturn decades of progress. Republicans countered those arguments by stating it was their constitutional right and obligation to fill the seat of the late Ginsburg. 

The day ended with Barrett’s swearing in and a statement from the nominee, in which she emphasized that she would stay impartial in her judgements and base her rulings not on her own views but on the law. 

Tuesday and Wednesday gave senators the opportunity to directly question Barrett, an opportunity which Democrats did not let go to waste. Throughout the sessions, Barrett was pressed on issues that will undoubtedly come up early in her tenure on the Court, the most important of those being abortion, healthcare and the results of the upcoming election. 

Barrett largely refused to comment on where she stands on any of the big-ticket topics and reiterated that she will remain objective, saying near the end of the second day, “I have no mission and no agenda.” 

Barrett, who clerked for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, insisted that though both she and Scalia are originalists (judges who believe the Constitutional text means what it did at the time it was ratified), her rulings would be independent of her mentor.

“You would not be getting Justice Scalia, you would be getting Justice Barrett,” she said.

The final day of hearings began with a partisan fight over the scheduling of the committee’s vote on the nomination. Senator Graham forced through a motion even though only one of the ten Democratic senators were present, stating the Republicans were being “denied the ability to operate as normal.” 

Barrett was not present for Thursday’s hearing, which was noticeably less civil than the question and answer sessions in the previous days. Democrats and Republicans frequently used their allotted time to argue over the speed of the confirmation, with Senator Amy Klobuchar even calling the entire process a “sham” and others referencing Republican’s refusal to accept then-President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016, nine months before that general election.

Republicans shot back, saying the situation is different this time because the nominating President is on the ballot and his party holds the majority in the Senate. Senators also listened to two panels of witnesses argue for and against Barrett’s confirmation, with some citing her warmth and legal prowess and others giving examples of how her decisions could negatively impact their lives. Despite their objections, Democrats conceded that they simply do not have the votes to slow down, let alone stop the confirmation process, with Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey recognizing “that this goose is pretty much cooked.” 

If the current schedule holds up, the Judiciary Committee will vote Oct. 22 to send the confirmation to the full Senate, where it only needs a simple majority to pass and for Amy Coney Barrett to become an Associate Justice. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, has indicated the Republicans “have the votes,” and he is planning on scheduling the final vote sometime during the week of Oct. 26, one week before the Nov. 3 general election.