Overpowering Democratic opposition, Senate Republicans confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court by vote of 52 to 48 along party lines, securing President Donald Trump’s nominee a week before the presidential election and what is likely to be a conservative court majority for years to come.
Trump’s choice to fill the vacancy of the late liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg potentially opens a new era of rulings on abortion, the Affordable Care Act and even a potential dispute over his own election.
Monday’s vote is the closest high court confirmation ever to a presidential election, and the first in modern times with no support from the minority party.
Just over an hour after the Senate vote, on the South Lawn of the White House, Barrett took the oath – the first of two – in front of Justice Clarence Thomas, as Trump watched on. After the ceremony, the president and Barrett appeared on the White House balcony with Trump applauding his choice, his third following conservatives Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
“The Barrett family has captured America’s heart,” Trump claimed. “It is highly fitting that Justice Barrett fills the seat of a true pioneer for women, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
Bader Ginsburg devoted much of her career to advancing women’s rights with far-reaching judgements and dissents on gender equality, reproductive rights and immigration matters.
Barrett is 48, and her writings against abortion and a ruling on “Obamacare” show a deeply conservative thinker.
Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over her separate judicial oath at the court on Tuesday, the court said in a statement.
“This is something to be really proud of and feel good about,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said during a rare weekend session on Sunday ahead of voting. He scoffed at the “apocalyptic” warnings from critics that the judicial branch was becoming mired in partisan politics and declared that “they won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”
Pence’s presence presiding for the vote would have been expected, showcasing the Republican priority. But Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and his leadership team said that it would not only violate virus guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “it would also be a violation of common decency and courtesy.”
Some Republican senators tested positive for the coronavirus following a Rose Garden event with Trump to announce Barrett’s nomination last month, but they have since said they have been cleared by their doctors from quarantine. Pence’s office said the vice president tested negative for the virus on Monday.
Democrats argued for weeks that the vote was being improperly rushed and insisted during an all-night session it should be up to the winner of the November 3 election to name the nominee. However, Barrett, a federal appeals court judge from Indiana, is expected to be seated swiftly, and begin hearing cases.
Speaking near midnight Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, called the vote “illegitimate” and “the last gasp of a desperate party”.
Several pre-election matters are awaiting decision just a week before the election, and Barrett could be a decisive vote in Republican appeals of orders extending the deadline for absentee ballots in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
The justices also are weighing Trump’s emergency plea for the court to prevent the Manhattan District Attorney from acquiring his tax returns. And on November 10, the court is expected to hear the Trump-backed challenge to the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.
‘Not the law of Amy’
Trump has said he wanted to swiftly install a ninth justice to resolve election disputes and is hopeful the justices will end the health law known as “Obamacare”.
In her confirmation hearings before the US Senate, Barrett presented herself as a neutral arbiter and suggested, “It’s not the law of Amy.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, praised the mother of seven as a role model — “a conservative woman who embraces her faith”.
Republicans focused on her Catholicism, reviving earlier Democratic questions about her beliefs. Graham said Barrett is “unabashedly pro-life, but she’s not going to apply ‘the law of Amy’ to all of us.”
At the start of Trump’s presidency, McConnell engineered a Senate rules change to allow confirmation by a majority of the 100 senators, rather than the 60-vote threshold traditionally needed to advance high court nominees over objections. That was an escalation of a rules change Democrats put in place to advance other court and administrative nominees under President Barack Obama.
Republicans are taking a political plunge by pushing for confirmation days from the November 3 election with the presidency and their Senate majority at stake.
Bill Schneider, professor of public policy at George Washington University, said the unprecedented haste had increased polarisation and would probably encourage more Democrats to get out and vote.
“We are at the peak of election season and Democrats are angry,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘Not fair, consistent’
Only one Republican, Senator Susan Collins, who is in a tight re-election fight in Maine, is expected to vote against the nominee, not over any direct assessment of Barrett. Rather, Collins said, “I do not think it is fair nor consistent to have a Senate confirmation vote prior to the election.”
Trump and his Republican allies had hoped for a campaign boost, in much the way Trump generated excitement among conservatives and evangelical Christians in 2016 over a court vacancy. That year, McConnell refused to allow the Senate to consider then-President Barack Obama’s choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia arguing the new president should decide.
Most other Republicans facing tough races embraced the nominee to bolster their standing with conservatives. Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican up for re-election in North Carolina, said in a speech Monday that Barrett will “go down in history as one of the great justices”.
But it is not clear the extraordinary effort to install the new justice over such opposition in a heated election year will pay political rewards for the Republican Party.
Demonstrations for and against the nominee have been more muted at the Capitol under coronavirus restrictions.
Democrats are unified against Barrett. While two senators voted to confirm Barrett in 2017 after Trump nominated the Notre Dame Law School professor, none are expected to now.
In a display of party priorities, California Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, is expected to return to Washington from the campaign trail to join colleagues with a no vote.
No other Supreme Court justice has been confirmed on a recorded vote with no support from the minority party in at least 150 years, according to information provided by the Senate Historical Office.