In an exercise of raw political power, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has put the Republican-controlled United States Senate on a path to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court just 11 days before United States national elections.
“In about 72 hours I predict we will have a new confirmed associate justice to the US Supreme Court,” McConnell said Friday on the Senate floor.
Barrett’s lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court requires a minimum of 51 votes and Republicans who control the Senate 53-47 say they have the numbers despite two likely Republican defections.
A procedural vote is expected during a rare Sunday session this weekend, setting up a final vote on Barrett on Monday.
The Senate action means Barrett would replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, creating a 6-3 majority of conservative justices.
Democrats focus on health care, rights
Democrats are expected to use the debate over the weekend to make a political case against President Donald Trump and Republican allies in the midst of national elections.
“A vote by any senator – any senator – for Judge Barrett is a vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said in a teleconference with news media.
The high court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare”, on November 10, just one week after the election.
In addition to healthcare, Democrats will characterise Republican support for Barrett as voting against reproductive freedoms for women and equal rights for people of colour, disadvantaged groups and the LGBTQ community.
“Every single one of our rights will be at stake,” Schumer said.
Republicans cite Barrett’s qualifications
Barrett, 48, is a conservative jurist who follows the “originalist” school of jurisprudence that interprets the US Constitution on the basis of the nation’s founders’ original intent.
She is a well-regarded professor of constitutional law at Indiana’s University of Notre Dame, where she graduated first in her law school class in 1997.
In 2017, Barrett was appointed by Trump to the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, Illinois.
The American Bar Association has rated her “well qualified” for the role of Supreme Court justice and she has support from many of her colleagues in academia and law.
During her confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barrett studiously avoided expressing any opinions on Supreme Court precedents or issues pending before the court.
Cries of hypocrisy
Democrats will characteriSe the entire process as destructive of norms in the Senate that have been eroded under McConnell’s leadership.
Senate Republicans had blocked former President Barack Obama’s nomination of a Supreme Court justice 10 months in advance of the 2016 election that Trump won, allowing him to nominate Justice Neil Gorsuch.
At the time, Republicans justified their position as a matter of democratic principles; close to an election, the people should decide who nominates new justices to the top US court.
Now, Republicans have abandoned those claims and instead are arguing that the 2016 election giving them control of the presidency and the Senate gives them a mandate to fill Ginsburg’s vacant seat.
“Elections have consequences and the American people elected a Republican president and Senate in 2016,” McConnell said.
With polls suggesting Democrats are in a position to win the White House and Congress, there is talk of passing legislation next year to expand the number of justices on the court.
“Everything is on the table,” Schumer said this week.
That has made the question of “court packing” an issue in the presidential campaign. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has said he would make his views clear after the Senate acts on Barrett, though in a television interview this week, Biden said that if elected, he would form a bipartisan commission to look at judicial reforms.
Two Republicans break ranks
Republican senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have expressed doubts about rushing Barrett’s confirmation and appear ready to vote against her.
“I’ve shared for a while that I didn’t think we should be taking this up until after the election, and I haven’t changed,” Murkowski told reporters at the US Capitol this week.
Asked whether she would be a “no” vote, Murkowski responded, “That means I haven’t changed my mind on that.”
Civil rights groups have come out in opposition to Barrett’s nomination and the rushed Senate process.
Collins, who is in a fight for re-election in Maine, reiterated her opposition to the process in an October 10 political debate with Democratic challenger Sara Gideon.
“It’s a matter of principle. It’s a matter of fairness,” Collins said.
“In a democracy, we should play by the same rules and the fact is that there has not been a confirmation of a Supreme Court justice in a presidential year since 1932,” Collins said.
Collins faces a potential defeat in Maine after being targeted by women’s rights groups for her controversial decision to support Trump nominee Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is seen as hostile to abortion rights sanctioned by the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision.
Rights groups oppose Barrett
Nongovernmental rights groups in the US have aligned against Barrett and are urging senators to vote against her nomination.
“This is reckless, and it is devastating. It is devastating for our communities and our democracy that Senate Republicans are rushing this process,” said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.