Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett batted back Democrats' skeptical questions on abortion, gun rights and election disputes in lively Senate confirmation testimony Tuesday, insisting she would bring no personal agenda to the court but would decide cases as they come.
The 48-year-old appellate court judge declared her conservative views with often colloquial language, but refused many specifics. She declined to say whether she would recuse herself from any election-related cases involving President Donald Trump, who nominated her to fill the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and is pressing to have her confirmed before the the Nov. 3 election.
“Judges can’t just wake up one day and say I have an agenda, I like guns, I hate guns, I like abortion, I hate abortion and walk in like a royal queen and impose their will on the world,” Barrett told the Senate Judiciary Committee during the second day of hearings.
“It’s not the law of Amy,” she said later. “It’s the law of the American people.”
Trump has said he wants a full nine-member court in place for any disputes arising from the heated election with Democrat Joe Biden. Barret testified she has not spoken to Trump or his team about that, saying to do so would be a “gross violation” of judicial independence. Pressed by panel Democrats, she declined to commit to recusing herself from post-election cases.
“I can’t offer an opinion on recusal without short-circuiting that entire process,” she said.
On her second day of hearings, Barrett returned to a Capitol Hill mostly locked down with COVID-19 protocols, the mood quickly shifting to a more confrontational tone from opening day. She was grilled in 30-minute segments by Democrats strongly opposed to Trump's nominee yet virtually powerless to stop her. Republicans are rushing toward confirmation along party lines.
Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii criticized Barrett for her use of the term “sexual preference.”
"Sexual preference is an offensive and outdated term,” Hirono said. “It is used by anti-LGBTQ activists to suggest that sexual orientation is a choice. It is not. Sexual orientation is a key part of a person's identity."
Coney Barrett later said that she did not mean to use a term that caused offense in the LGBTQ community.
“If I did, I greatly apologize for that,” she said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked her whether criminalizing in vitro fertilization would be constitutional. Coney Barrett signed a letter written by what was then called the St. Joseph County Right to Life of South Bend, Indiana, in 2006 that said that life begins at fertilization.
“I think there’s a clear answer,” Blumenthal told her.
She refused to answer.
“We can’t answer questions in the abstract,” she said.
A frustrated Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the panel, all but implored the nominee to be more specific about how she would handle landmark abortion cases, including Roe v. Wade and the follow-up Pennsylvania case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which confirmed it in large part.
“It’s distressing not to get a good answer,” Feinstein told the judge.
Barrett told the senator she could not pre-commit to an approach.
“I don’t have an agenda to try to overrule Casey,” the judge said. “I have an agenda to stick to the rule of law and decide cases as they come.”
Responding to questioning from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Barrett said she did not consider Roe v. Wade, the decision that helped ensure a woman's ability to obtain an abortion, to be a "superprecedent" protected from reversal.
Barrett said that she defined "superprecedent" as a case that is "so well settled that no political actors and no people seriously push for their overruling."
"I am answering a lot of questions about Roe, which I think indicates that it does not fall in that category," Barrett said, adding that her answers does not mean that Roe should be overturned.
The committee chairman, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., gaveled open the session under coronavirus protocols that kept it off limits to members of the public. Barrett and most senators arrived in masks, removing them to speak. Some senators attended remotely.
Republicans have been focused on defending Barrett and her Catholic faith against possible criticism concerning issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and Graham asked if she would be able to shelve her personal beliefs to adhere to law.
“I can. I have done that," she said. “I will do that still.”
Graham praised her as a conservative woman of faith and the best possible nominee Trump could have chosen.
"I will do everything I can to make sure that you have a seat at the table. And that table is the Supreme Court,” Graham said.
The Senate, led by Trump’s Republican allies, is pushing Barrett’s nomination to a quick vote before Nov. 3, and ahead of the the latest challenge to the “Obamacare” Affordable Care Act, which the Supreme Court is to hear a week after the election.
Barrett distanced herself from her past writings perceived as critical of the Obama-era health care law, saying those pieces were not addressing specific aspects of the law as she would if confirmed to the court.
“I am not hostile to the ACA,” Barrett told the senators. “I apply the law. I follow the law. You make the policy."
She appeared stumped when Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., tried to put her on the spot about several details of the health care law's effects. She could not recite specifics, including that 23 million people are covered by the law or that more than 2 million young people are on their parents' health insurance.
The Indiana judge, accompanied by her family, described herself as taking a conservative, originalist approach to the Constitution - “text as text” — and believing a judge “doesn’t infuse her own meaning into it.”
She told the senators that while she admires the late Justice Antonin Scalia, her conservative mentor for whom she once clerked, she would bring her own approach to the high court.
“You would not be getting Justice Scalia, you would be getting Justice Barrett,” she declared.
Senators probed her views on gun ownership and racial equity, at one point drawing an emotional response from the mother of seven, whose children include two adopted from Haiti, as she described watching the video of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.
“Racism persists," she said, adding that Floyd's death had a “very personal” effect on her family and that she and her children wept over it. But she told Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that "making broader diagnoses about the problem of racism is kind of beyond what I’m capable of doing as a judge.”
Overall, Barrett's conservative views are at odds with the late Ginsburg, the liberal icon whose seat Trump nominated her to fill.
Ginsburg’s legacy was felt throughout the sessions, with some Democrats wearing lapel pins with her likeness. And Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Democrat Biden’s running mate, declared during Monday's hearing that Barrett's nomination has put in jeopardy everything Ginsburg fought to protect.
Barring a dramatic development, Republicans appear to have the votes to confirm Barrett to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court, and they spent their time portraying her as a thoughtful judge with impeccable credentials. She would be Trump's third justice.
Underscoring the Republicans’ confidence, Graham set an initial committee vote on the nomination for Thursday, even before the last day of hearings wrapped, which would allow final approval by the panel for one week later and a vote for confirmation by the full Senate on Oct. 26.
Protesters rallied outside the Senate buildings with the hearing room largely closed to the public.
Democrats already were enraged that Republicans are moving so quickly, having refused to consider President Barack Obama's nominee after Scalia's death in February 2016, well before that year's election.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Michael Balsamo in Washington, Elana Schor in New York and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.