Senators weigh COVID-19 risk for Barrett Supreme Court hearing

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett vows to be a justice "fearless of criticism" as the split Senate charges ahead with confirmation hearings on President Donald Trump’s pick to cement a conservative court majority before Election Day.

Barrett, a federal appeals court judge, draws on faith and family in her prepared opening remarks for the hearings, which begin Monday as the country is in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic. She says courts "should not try" to make policy, and believes she would bring "a few new perspectives" as the first mother of school-age children on the nine-member court.

Trump chose the 48-year-old judge after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal icon.

"I have been nominated to fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat, but no one will ever take her place," Barrett says in her remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Associated Press obtained a copy of her statement on Sunday.

Barrett says she has resolved to maintain the same perspective as her mentor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who was "devoted to his family, resolute in his beliefs, and fearless of criticism."

Republicans who control the Senate are moving at a breakneck pace to seat Barrett before the Nov. 3 election, in time to hear a high-profile challenge to the Affordable Care Act and any election-related challenges that may follow voting.

Democrats are trying in vain to delay the fast-track confirmation, raising fresh concerns about the safety of meeting as two GOP senators on the panel tested positive for COVID-19.

The committee released a letter from the Architect of the Capitol on Sunday that says the hearing room has been set up in consultation with the Office of Attending Physician with appropriate distance between seats and air ventilation systems that meet or exceed industry standards.

Still, California Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee who is also a committee member, plans to participate remotely from her Senate office due to coronavirus concerns, her spokesman said Sunday.

Two members who have tested positive for the virus, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., have not said if they will attend in person. Lee's spokesman said the senator is symptom-free but would be making a decision on whether to attend Monday morning, per his doctor’s orders. A spokesman for Tillis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Harris and others said the hearings should not move forward without plans to test those attending for COVID. One Republican, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, said "it would be smart to do that," according to the Des Moines Register. Aside from media, few, if any, members of the public will be allowed to attend.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York told the AP that the committee’s chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has "an obligation to be tested" for COVID-19 beforehand because he has been exposed to those with the disease.

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Graham told Fox News Channel’s "Sunday Morning Futures" that he took a test last week and is "negative." He said, "We’re going to work safely."

The hearings are taking place less than a month after the death of Ginsburg gave Trump the chance to entrench a conservative majority on the court with his third justice.

Another reason for moving quickly: It may be harder to confirm Trump's pick before the end of the congressional session if Democrat Joe Biden were to win the White House and Democrats gain seats in the Senate. No Supreme Court has ever been confirmed so close to a presidential election.

The country will get an extended look at Barrett over three days, beginning with her opening statement late Monday and hours of questioning Tuesday and Wednesday.

"She’s going to wow them," said Carrie Severino, president of Judicial Crisis Network, which backs conservative nominees.

Barrett is telling senators that "courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life."

"Policy decisions and value judgments of government must be made by the political branches," she said in the prepared remarks. "The public should not expect courts to do so, and courts should not try."

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A mother of seven, she also says she uses her children as a test when deciding cases, asking herself how she would view the decision if one of her children were the party she was ruling against.

"Even though I would not like the result, would I understand that the decision was fairly reasoned and grounded in the law?" she says.

A Catholic, she says she believes in the "power of prayer." Her religious views and past leadership role in a faith community pose a challenge for Democrats as they try to probe her judicial approach to abortion, gay marriage and other social issues without veering into inappropriate questions of her faith.

Ordinarily, Barrett would get to show off her family. But the White House event announcing her nomination, in which most of the audience did not wear masks, has been labeled a "superspreader" for the coronavirus.

More than two dozen people linked to the Sept. 26 Rose Garden event, including the two GOP senators, have contracted COVID-19 since then. Barrett and her family went maskless at the event. Barrett and her husband, Jesse, tested positive for the virus earlier this year and recovered, two administration officials have said.

Democrats already were enraged that Republicans are moving so quickly having refused to consider President Barack Obama nominee in February 2016, before that year's election. The Senate did not grant Judge Merrick Garland even a hearing, much less a vote.

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Outside groups are pushing Democrats to make a strong case against what they call an illegitimate confirmation so close to the election, when people are already voting in some states.

"The public is with them that this shouldn’t happen before the election," said Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, which advocates against right-leaning nominees.

Democrats have made clear that they will press Barrett on health care, especially with the imminent Supreme Court arguments, and abortion, among other issues where her vote could push the court further to the right.

"I intend to, and I think everybody else on the Democratic side, will focus on the fact that she is being pushed on to the Supreme Court just in time for the Nov. 10 hearing on the Affordable Care Act," Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said. "That leaves millions and millions of families totally in the cold in regard to health care."

Barrett also is the most openly anti-abortion Supreme Court nominee in decades and her vote could provide a majority to restrict if not overturn abortion rights. She also has voiced skepticism about some gun control laws.

Republicans will highlight Barrett’s belief in sticking to the text of laws and the original meaning of constitutional provisions, both Scalia trademarks as well.

Her personal story also will be a frequent topic for Republicans asking questions.

"She has proven a mom really can do anything," Ernst said after meeting with Barrett last week.