Politics

Amy Coney Barrett is sworn in, swinging Supreme Court further to the right

Key Points
  • Amy Coney Barrett took her constitutional oath as a Supreme Court justice, swinging the nation's highest court to a conservative 6-3 majority.
  • The nighttime White House ceremony came after a divided Senate voted to confirm the 48-year-old judge, capping a bitter fight over the partisan makeup of the judicial body.
  • Barrett's elevation came just eight days before the final votes are cast in the contest between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
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Amy Coney Barrett takes her constitutional oath as a Supreme Court justice

Amy Coney Barrett took her constitutional oath as a Supreme Court justice in a nighttime ceremony outside the White House on Monday, swinging the nation's highest court to a conservative 6-3 majority.

President Donald Trump, who has now selected three of the court's nine justices, called the elevation of Barrett to fill the seat of the late liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg a "momentous day for America."

The oath was administered by Justice Clarence Thomas on the South Lawn. Chief Justice John Roberts will administered a second oath, known as the judicial oath, on Tuesday in a private ceremony,

At Monday night's ceremony, Barrett pledged to follow the law. "A judge declares independence not only from Congress and the president, but also from the private beliefs that might otherwise move her," she said.

Earlier in the day, a divided Senate voted to confirm the 48-year-old judge to a lifetime term on the court, capping a bitter fight over the partisan makeup of the judicial body, which has taken place in the middle of an unusually explosive presidential election.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks before the U.S. Senate votes on the confirmation of President Donald Trump?s nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett to be an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court as they meet in the Senate Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S, October 26, 2020.
Senate TV | Reuters

The vote was 52-48 along largely partisan lines, with only Sen. Susan Collins of Maine breaking with Republicans to vote against the confirmation.

Barrett's elevation came just eight days before the final votes are cast in the contest between Trump and Joe Biden.

Ahead of the vote, lawmakers sparred over whether Barrett's views fell within the legal mainstream.

"She's as mainstream as it gets, from our side of the aisle," Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on the Senate floor.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in his own speech that Barrett held "far right views, well outside of the American mainstream, and those views matter."

Barrett's confirmation, which was virtually assured given the GOP hold on the Senate, is expected to shift the ideological balance of the court to the right on issues such as gun rights, abortion, business and the environment.

In the coming months, the justices will also decide the fate of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, through which tens of millions of Americans have access to health insurance. The case over the law will be argued on Nov. 10, one week after the election.

Raising the stakes, both Democrats and Republicans have suggested the court may be called to decide the election itself, as it did in the 2000 race between President George Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

Experts have said the possibility of the election being decided in court is elevated this year because of a flood of litigation related to voting rule changes that came about as a result of the spreading Covid-19 pandemic.

As the Senate voted on Barrett's confirmation, the Supreme Court released an order rejecting an effort by Democrats to extend the deadline for counting absentee ballots in the battleground state Wisconsin, dividing 5-3 along partisan lines, with the Democratic appointees in dissent.

The possibility of a contested election has overshadowed Barrett's confirmation process.

Trump repeatedly pressed for Barrett to be confirmed in time to vote on any such cases, prompting Democrats to demand her recusal.

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he poses with U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett on a White House balcony after she was sworn in to serve as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 26, 2020.
Tom Brenner | Reuters

During two days of questioning before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month, Barrett agreed to carefully weigh whether her participation in an election case would be inappropriate, but declined to commit to abstaining.

The battle over Barrett's nomination was sparked last month after the death of Ginsburg, who served on the Supreme Court for 27 years.

Replacing Ginsburg with Barrett represents the most stark ideological shift on the court since the liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall was replaced by conservative Thomas in 1991.

Trump and his allies in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., immediately moved to replace Ginsburg before Election Day. Biden and Democrats in Congress argued the process was a sham, and pressed for Ginsburg's replacement to be named by the winner of next week's election.

Schumer and others pointed to McConnell's 2016 refusal to even hold hearings for President Barack Obama's nominee Merrick Garland during an election year.

In remarks before Barrett's confirmation vote, McConnell defended his actions, saying that Republicans had only exercised "the power that was given to us by the American people, in a manner that is entirely within the rules of the Senate and the Constitution of the United States."

Barrett's confirmation is the first to come so close to a presidential election. The vote took place after a historic number of early votes have already been cast. More than 58 million Americans have already voted, as people around the country flock to early voting as a result of coronavirus.

U.S. President Donald Trump applauds U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett after she took her oath of office and was sworn in to serve on the court on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 26, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Ginsburg herself weighed in. In a death-bed statement, the 87-year-old said her "most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed."

Republicans praised Ginsburg's career but pressed on with Barrett's confirmation process.

"A lot of what we've done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election," McConnell said on Sunday night from the Senate floor. "They won't be able to do much about this for a long time to come."

Barrett has been a professor at Notre Dame Law School since 2002 and sat on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for three years. She clerked early in her career for Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative hero, and has said that she shares his judicial philosophy.

Throughout her marathon hearings earlier this month, Barrett provided few direct answers, but reaffirmed her conservative mode of judicial interpretation. She declared her independence from both the White House and Congress and said she would approach cases, including the dispute over Obamacare, with an open mind, if confirmed.

Democrats used the hearings to focus the attention of voters on health care, arguing that Barrett's confirmation will doom the Affordable Care Act. Republicans, on the other hand, touted Barrett's legal credentials and her personal background as a Catholic mother of seven.

"This is the first time in American history that we've nominated a woman who is unashamedly pro-life and embraces her faith without apology," Graham said at the time

Progressives criticized Democrats on the committee for their handling of the hearings, with some calling for Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking member, to leave her post.

Democrats cut down their participation in the nomination process after that, boycotting the committee's vote on Thursday to approve Barrett out of committee. Barrett passed a key procedural vote from the full Senate on Sunday in a 51-48 vote in which no Democrat voted in her favor.

Two Republicans, Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, sided with Democrats on Sunday.

Murkowski and Collins had said they opposed the seating of a new justice before Election Day.

On Monday, however, Murkowski voted to confirm Barrett, after her largely symbolic vote the day before.

"I believe that the only way to put us back on the path of appropriate consideration of judicial nominees is to evaluate Judge Barrett as we would want to be judged. On the merits of her qualifications," Murkowski said Saturday.

"And we do that when that final question comes before us. And when it does, I will be a yes," she said.

Collins, who is facing a tough reelection battle that remains focused on her 2018 support of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's second nominee, voted against Barrett's confirmation.

Vice President Mike Pence, who was slated to preside over Monday's Senate hearings, backed out earlier in the day after a Covid-19 outbreak among a number of his key advisors.

On Sunday, Pence had said that he would not change his schedule despite at least five of his aides testing positive, including his chief of staff Marc Short, with whom he had been in close contact.

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