President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Tuesday said at her U.S. Senate confirmation hearing that her religious views would not affect her decisions on the bench and declined to say whether she believes landmark rulings legalizing abortion and gay marriage nationwide were properly decided.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing also presented 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.
Trump has asked the Senate to confirm Barrett before the November 3 election in which he is seeking a second term in office.
Barrett, facing questioning by senators for the first time, declined to say whether she would consider stepping aside from an upcoming Obamacare 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," Barrett said.
Barrett noted that the new case the court is hearing on November 10 is on a different legal issue to two previous Supreme Court rulings that upheld Obamacare, which she had criticized. Barrett declined to say how she would approach the new case in which Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate the 2010 law formally called the Affordable Care Act.
The Affordable Care Act is Democratic former President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy achievement and has enabled millions of Americans to obtain medical coverage.
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In responding to questions about abortion, which was legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court in a 1973 ruling called Roe v. Wade, Barrett said she would, as in other cases, consider the various factors usually applied when justices weigh whether to overturn a precedent.
"I promise to do that for any issue that comes up, abortion or anything else. I'll follow the law," Barrett said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel's top Democrat, asked Barrett whether she believed Roe v. Wade, which recognized a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, was properly decided. She declined to answer.
Feinstein told Barrett it was "disturbing" that she would not give an answer.
Religious conservatives are hoping the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade.
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," Barrett said.
Graham asked Barrett, a devout Catholic and a favorite of religious conservatives, whether she could set aside her religious beliefs in making decisions as a justice.
"I can," Barrett said.
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.
Questioned by Feinstein, Barrett would not comment on whether she agreed with Scalia that the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide was wrongly decided.
"I have no agenda and I do want to be clear that I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and I would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference," Barrett said.
Barrett declined to answer when Feinstein asked her whether the U.S. Constitution gives the president the authority to unilaterally delay a general election under any circumstances. Barrett said if such a question came before her as a judge she would have to hear arguments and read legal briefs before deciding.
"If I give off the cuff answers then I would be basically a legal pundit. And I don't think we want judges to be legal pundits. We want judges to approach cases thoughtfully and with an open mind," Barrett said.
Barrett was nominated to a lifetime post on the court on September 26 by Trump to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority, leaving Democrats with little to no chance of blocking Barrett's confirmation.
If confirmed, 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 Trump's third Supreme Court appointment.
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 Barrett before Election Day. Democrat Joe Biden is challenging the Republican Trump.
The hearing is a key step before a full Senate vote by the end of October on Barrett's confirmation to a lifetime job on the court.