Supreme Court confirmation hearings to plow ahead amid COVID-19 infections

By: - October 9, 2020 5:34 pm

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, left and Judge Amy Coney Barrett bump elbows during a meeting Oct. 1 after Barrett’s nomination by President Trump for the U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo by Tanner Wilson, courtesy of Sen. Ernst’s office)

Federal Judge Amy Coney Barrett will face the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee beginning Monday for what’s expected to be an unusual and contentious four days of hearings on her nomination for the Supreme Court.

Democrats sought unsuccessfully to block those hearings, raising concerns about the short time frame before Election Day, the urgent need to focus instead on coronavirus relief legislation, and safety considerations related to COVID-19 cases among two Republican members of Judiciary.

Those lawmakers, Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, both tested positive for the virus after attending Barrett’s announcement ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, a packed event where few attendees wore masks.

President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, White House officials, and the University of Notre Dame president also have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since that announcement ceremony.

Senate Republicans declined to pause or slow down the historically fast confirmation process. During the Judiciary hearings, the committee’s 12 Republican and 10 Democratic members will have the option to participate remotely, a hybrid approach that congressional panels have used in response to the pandemic.

Several Democrats, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who helped set up remote hearings earlier this year, have opposed allowing senators to take part virtually while considering a Supreme Court nominee. A spokeswoman for Klobuchar did not respond to questions on whether she plans to participate remotely or in the hearing room.

Tillis, who announced Oct. 2 that he had tested positive for COVID-19, told Fox News that he plans to join virtually “for the first day or two, and then I should be cleared for the vote later in the week.”

Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel’s ranking Democrat, are expected to attend in person.

Inside the hearing room, there will be limits on the number of people in attendance, as well as stations stocked with protective gear, such as masks and gloves.

Barrett, 48, a judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, was tapped by Trump to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18. Barrett graduated from Notre Dame’s law school and has served on the faculty there.

The nominee previously appeared before the Judiciary Committee in 2017, when she was being considered for her current appeals court post. Democrats sparked criticism for questions in that hearing over how Barrett’s Catholic faith would affect her legal decision-making.

Her confirmation would secure a shift on the court toward its conservative wing, giving them a 6-3 majority on the bench.

Under the confirmation hearing schedule outlined by Republicans, most of Monday’s action is expected to center around opening statements from committee members and introductory remarks from Barrett.

The question-and-answer portion begins on Tuesday, when each senator will have 30 minutes to question Barrett. In subsequent rounds of questioning, the time allotments will shrink to 20 minutes and then 10 minutes.

On Thursday, witnesses on an outside panel that has not yet been announced are expected to testify about Barrett.

This week’s hearings will set up a pair of swift votes on Barrett’s nomination. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told reporters recently that she expects the committee will vote on Oct. 22, with a floor vote by the full Senate to follow on Oct. 26 or 27.

Republicans have secured enough support to confirm Barrett, with the GOP senators who tested positive for COVID-19 expected to be able to safely return to the Capitol in time to vote.

But the confirmation hearing still will be closely watched, particularly after the hotly debated confirmations of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chaired the Judiciary panel during those hearings, and remains on the committee. He’s expected to attend in person, and the 87-year-old was one of the few members who wore a mask even when speaking during a recent Judiciary hearing.

Iowa’s junior senator, Republican Joni Ernst, also will participate in person. Ernst is one of two female GOP members on the committee. She and Sen. Marsha Blackburn were added following the Kavanaugh hearings in 2018. There were no Republican women on the panel as it investigated sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, and there never had been.

Blackburn has been a visible defender of Barrett in her interviews and other appearances, arguing that the judge would bring a new perspective to the court as a conservative, working mother.

Tillis, who is in a very competitive re-election race this fall, was a swift supporter of Barrett, and vowed even before she had been named to vote for whomever Trump tapped for the court.

The panel also includes Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican who intends to participate in person. After meeting with Barrett last month, Kennedy described her as “an impressive, thoughtful jurist,” and said he looked forward to her confirmation hearing.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Iowa Capital Dispatch. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.