WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump introduced Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court on Saturday, calling her “one of our nation’s most brilliant and gifted legal minds” as he ignited a partisan and ideological battle in the middle of an already volatile presidential campaign.
In a ceremony in the Rose Garden with Barrett at his side and her husband and seven children in the audience, Trump presented Barrett as a champion of the sort of conservative judicial philosophy as her onetime mentor Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom she clerked and who died four years ago.
“She is a woman of unparalleled achievement, towering intellect, sterling credentials and unyielding loyalty to the Constitution,” Trump said as he made his third Supreme Court nomination in nearly four years in office.
In choosing Barrett to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the president opted for the candidate most likely to thrill his conservative base and outrage his liberal opponents, drawing sharp lines on some of the most divisive disputes in American life at a time when voters have already begun to cast ballots in the contest for the White House.
Never in American history has a Supreme Court confirmation fight played out to conclusion so close to a presidential election and the confluence of the debate in the halls of the Senate with the debate on the campaign trail injected further uncertainty into the fall. Trump hopes to galvanize conservatives and change the subject from the coronavirus pandemic that has killed 203,000 Americans, while his adversaries seek to rally liberals over the prospect of the Supreme Court turning further to the right.
The president, addressing a late-night campaign rally in Newport News, Virginia, on Friday, rejected complaints by Democrats that he was rushing to fill the seat too close to an election even though Senate Republicans refused to even consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland made months before the 2016 election. But he hedged slightly on whether the Senate will vote by Nov. 3 or wait until a lame-duck session afterward.
“The Democrats are saying, ‘Well, it’s the end of a term,’” Trump told supporters who chanted “fill that seat” during the rally. “You know, we have a lot of time left. Think of this. If it were them — don’t forget, we don’t have to do it by the election, but we should really be able. That would be a great victory, going into the election with that biggest of all victories.”
He added: “You know, they say the biggest thing you can do is the appointment of judges, but especially the appointment of Supreme Court justices. That’s the single biggest thing a president can do because it sets the tone of the country for 40 years, 50 years, I mean a long time.”
Indeed, Barrett, 48, would be the youngest member of the current court and could serve for decades, underscoring the stakes. Trump has long believed that one of the pivotal reasons for his election victory in 2016 was his appeal to conservatives eager to fill the seat held open by Senate Republicans after Scalia’s death that February.
Barrett’s nomination could arguably be the most consequential since President George Bush appointed Judge Clarence Thomas to succeed Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1991, replacing the court’s most liberal member at the time with a jurist who would prove to be its most conservative. Barrett, who was seen as the most committed conservative on Trump’s list of finalists, would similarly take the seat of a liberal justice in a sharp philosophical shift.
Barrett has been described as a protégée and intellectual successor to Scalia, for whom she clerked. Educated at Notre Dame Law School, she served on its faculty for years before Trump appointed her in 2017 to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
During her confirmation hearings to that post, Democrats questioned her public statements and Catholicism, making her a hero to religious conservatives who denounced what they called unfair attacks on her faith. But liberals pointed to her writings to say they feared she would undo Roe v. Wade and other rulings on gay rights, health care and other issues.
“If she is nominated and confirmed, Coney Barrett would work to dismantle all that Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought for during her extraordinary career,” Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, which promotes rights for LGBTQ Americans, said before Trump’s announcement. “An appointment of this magnitude must be made by the president inaugurated in January.”
Jeanne Mancini, the president of March for Life, an anti-abortion group, called Barrett’s reported selection “exciting news” for conservatives. “We have confidence that she will fairly apply the law and constitution as written, which includes protecting the most vulnerable in our nation: our unborn children,” she said.
Polls show that most Americans say that the winner of the Nov. 3 election should fill the seat rather than Trump rushing through an appointment before then. But the president made clear this past week that he wanted his pick on the court in time to rule on any challenges arising from the election itself, guaranteeing what he hopes would be an additional vote to potentially secure a second term.
To confirm her by then would require a 38-day sprint through a process that since 1975 has typically taken twice as long, all at the same time many senators want to be in their home states to campaign. No seriously contested Supreme Court nomination has been confirmed so quickly since 1949.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will vet Barrett’s nomination and himself an incumbent facing a serious election challenge, planned to outline the confirmation process for the first time in a statement Saturday night after the president’s announcement.
Graham’s schedule will call for significantly less time than usual for lawmakers to meet with and vet Barrett than recent nominees, cutting to about two weeks a stage of the process that has typically lasted six. White House officials had already started reaching out Thursday and Friday to begin scheduling courtesy visits to lawmakers who wanted them, even before there was a nominee.
Graham has circulated a schedule to Republican lawmakers that includes four consecutive days of confirmation hearings beginning Oct. 12, and a committee vote on Barrett’s nomination on Oct. 22. Senate Republicans were aiming for a final confirmation vote in the final days of October, although Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has kept his cards close to his vest rather than fully commit to a preelection vote.
Republicans argue that the truncated timeline is appropriate given that Barrett was vetted by the Senate as recently as 2017 for her current post. But if Republicans aim to have a new justice installed before the election, it leaves little room for error or unexpected delay.
Republicans expect to lose two of their more moderate members. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has said that she will not vote to confirm anyone before Election Day out of fairness. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska took a similar position and then backtracked, but she is a vocal supporter of abortion rights and is expected to look skeptically upon the nominee’s views of Roe v. Wade. The defections, though, are unlikely to go any farther and McConnell has made clear to colleagues that he is pleased with Barrett’s selection.
With little chance of stopping Barrett’s confirmation, Senate Democrats hoped to stir public outrage over what they called an election-season power grab by Republicans that could have a lasting and damaging effect on the lives of Americans. For now, the fight appeared to have unified Senate Democrats in opposition to any nominee — no small feat given the handful of moderates in their ranks. And Democrats have made clear in recent days that they intend to hammer away at Barrett’s views on abortion and the Affordable Care Act.
“You’ll find there will be a wall of opposition, pretty unyielding, based on the rush to confirm a justice before the inaugural, denying the American people any voice in choosing the next justice,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
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