Trump's US Supreme Court pick sidesteps question on landmark abortion ruling

Amy Coney Barrett declined to say if she would consider stepping aside from the case.
Amy Coney Barrett declined to say if she would consider stepping aside from the case.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Tuesday (Oct 13) told her US Senate confirmation hearing that her religious views would not affect her decisions on the bench and declined to say whether she believes the landmark 1973 ruling legalising abortion nationwide was properly decided.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing also presented Mrs Barrett with a chance to respond to Democratic lawmakers who have been unified in opposing her on what they say would be her role in undermining the Obamacare healthcare law and its protection for patients with pre-existing conditions.

Mrs Barrett, facing questioning by senators for the first time, declined to say if she would consider stepping aside from the case, as Democrats have requested, saying she would follow rules on recusal, which give individual justices the final say.

"That's not a question I can answer in the abstract," Mrs Barrett said.

In responding to questions about abortion, which was legalised by the Supreme Court in a 1973 ruling called Roe v. Wade, Mrs Barrett said she would, as in other cases, consider the various factors usually applied when justices weigh whether to overturn a precedent.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel's top Democrat, asked Mrs Barrett whether she believed Roe v. Wade, which recognised a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, was properly decided. She declined to answer.

Ms Feinstein told Mrs Barrett it was "disturbing" that she would not give an answer.

Religious conservatives are hoping the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade.

Mrs Barrett pledged to follow the rules that bind justices when considering whether to overturn precedent.

"I promise to do that for any issue that comes up, abortion or anything else. I'll follow the law," Mrs Barrett said.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the committee's chairman, opened the questioning by asking her about her conservative legal philosophy known as originalism, in which laws and the Constitution are interpreted based on the meaning they had at the time they were enacted.

"That meaning doesn't change over time and it's not for me to update it or infuse my own policy views into it," Mrs Barrett said.

Mr Graham asked Mrs Barrett, a devout Catholic and a favourite of religious conservatives, whether she could set aside her religious beliefs in making decisions as a justice.

"I can," Mrs Barrett said.

Mrs Barrett called the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom she served as a clerk two decades ago, as her mentor, but said she would not always rule the same way as him.

"You would not be getting Justice Scalia, you would be getting Justice Barrett. That is so because originalists don't always agree," she said.

Mrs Barrett sat alone at a table facing the senators.

Mrs Barrett was nominated to a lifetime post on the court on Sept 26 by Mr Trump to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Mrs Barrett could be on the Supreme Court in time for the Nov 10 arguments in a case in which Mr Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate the 2010 Affordable Care Act, Democratic former president Barack Obama's signature domestic policy achievement that has enabled millions of Americans to obtain medical coverage.

Mrs Barrett has criticised a 2012 Supreme Court ruling authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts that upheld the law, popularly known as Obamacare.

Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority, leaving Democrats with little to no chance of blocking Mrs Barrett's confirmation.

If confirmed, Mrs Barrett, 48, would tilt the Supreme Court further to the right and give conservative justices a 6-3 majority, making even the unexpected victories on which liberals have prevailed in recent years, including abortion and gay rights, rarer still. She is Mr Trump's third Supreme Court appointment.

Mr Trump's nomination of Barrett came late in an election cycle when Republican control of both the White House and Senate is at stake. The confirmation hearing format has changed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the public excluded and some senators participating remotely.

Democrats, including vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris, on the first day of the hearing zeroed in on the fate of Obamacare, as Republicans push to confirm Mrs Barrett before the Nov 3 presidential election between Mr Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

The hearing is a key step before a full Senate vote by the end of October on Mrs Barrett's confirmation to a lifetime job on the court.