Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump named Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Saturday, setting in motion a rush by Republicans to cement a conservative majority on the court on the eve of a tense and potentially disputed US election.
Trump stood alongside Barrett at a White House Rose Garden ceremony to announce his decision, calling her "one of the most brilliant and gifted minds" in the legal world.
Despite strong opposition from Democrats, he predicted a "very quick" and "straightforward" confirmation in the Republican-led Senate, with the process completed before the November 3 election.
If confirmed, Barrett will fill the seat of late liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, likely steering the court to the right for years, expanding the current conservative wing's sometimes shaky 5-4 advantage to a solid 6-3.
Trump has previously filled two of the nine seats on the high court.
With the liberals' influence waning, the court will likely see a replay of some of the biggest judicial disputes in the nation, not least abortion rights and the already battered Obamacare health care plan.
More immediately -- and even more explosively -- a quick confirmation of Barrett would tilt the court just as fears are growing that the body may have to arbitrate a post-election dispute in which either Trump or his Democratic opponent Joe Biden refuses to accept the result.
Trump, who is well behind in the polls, has repeatedly said he may have to challenge results, alleging -- without evidence -- that Democrats want a "rigged" election. He said this week that the contest is likely to end up in the Supreme Court.
Biden reacted immediately, saying "the Senate should not act" until voters have chosen their next president.
Senate Judiciary Committee hearings to consider Barrett's nomination are scheduled to begin October 12.
'Fill the seat!'
Underlining the heavily politicized atmosphere, Trump left soon after the Rose Garden ceremony for a campaign rally in Pennsylvania -- one of the handful of swing states that hold the balance in tight presidential elections.
Trump is clearly hoping his ability to transform the Supreme Court to favorable territory for right-wing views will galvanize voters. "Fill the seat!" has become a standard chant at his rallies.
Barrett "will defend your God-given rights and freedoms,' Trump told the crowd in Middletown, where supporters enthusiastically received news of her nomination.
"I think she's an excellent choice," said rally attendee Dianne Billig, 54. "I like that she is true to the constitution."
Democrats are furious, given that Trump could lose the election, yet still leave a judicial imprint with potential to last decades. They are especially incensed, given that Barrett, 48, is replacing Ginsburg, one of the country's biggest feminist icons and a steady ally of the left.
"Considering the fact that this Supreme Court nominee may serve on the court for 30 years, it is nothing short of outrageous that they want to approve her in fewer than 30 days," Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, told CNN on Saturday.
Added Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat: "Justice Ginsburg must be turning over in her grave up in heaven, to see that the person they chose seems to be intent on undoing all the things that Ginsburg did."
A majority of Americans -- by 57 to 38 percent -- oppose the push for confirmation before the election, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll.
But leaders of the Republican majority in the Senate, which is tasked with confirming Supreme Court nominees, said they expect a vote either before the election or, at latest, during the ensuing "lame duck" session before the inauguration of the next president in January.
Barrett reaches out
Barrett was first named to the bench in 2017. A deeply conservative Catholic and mother of seven, she is an opponent of abortion, a core issue for many Republicans.
Barrett used her own remarks at the White House to try and calm the waters.
She began with an impassioned tribute to Ginsburg, saying, "should I be confirmed, I will be mindful of who came before me."
"The flag of the United States is still flying at half staff in memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to mark the end of a great American life," she said, noting the jurist's pioneering success in law. "She not only broke glass ceilings, she smashed them."
Barrett also gave a taste of what will be her presentation to the Senate, describing her conservative values as a judge.
"A judge must apply the law as written. Judges are not policymakers," she said.