Trump court nominee fends off questions on abortion, health care

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Amy Coney Barrett, holds up a blank notepad after being asked what documents she had on her desk during her US Senate confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court

Washington (AFP) - US President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett told lawmakers Tuesday she would put personal and religious beliefs aside when deciding landmark cases but stopped short of revealing how she would rule on hot-button issues like abortion.

In her first day of marathon questioning, the 48-year-old conservative judge said she would consider both sides of arguments over health care, sexual preference discrimination, guns, or reproductive rights.

Barrett's four days of hearings that began Monday come just three weeks before the election, with Democrats arguing the process should be postponed until the next president has been elected and taken office.

Trump, recovering from Covid-19 and trailing Joe Biden in polls, is desperate for a swift confirmation to fire up conservatives.

Democrats say that the president is also rushing the process so that he has another justice on the bench who would likely rule in his favor should a challenge to election integrity be brought before the Supreme Court.

"I don't have any agenda," Barrett said under questioning from Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein who asked whether she believed the landmark Roe v Wade case upholding abortion rights was wrongly decided in 1973. 

"I have an agenda to stick to the rule of law and decide cases as they come."

The hearings also occur under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed 215,000 Americans. 

And with three US senators -- including two on the Judiciary Committee questioning Barrett -- announcing last week that they contracted Covid-19, Democrats slammed the hearing as "reckless" and dangerous.

But Democrats, who control 47 Senate seats versus the Republicans' 53, are largely powerless to block the confirmation.

'I follow the law'

Barrett declined to say whether she would recuse herself from any case over the 2020 election, adding: "I have made no commitment to anyone, not in the Senate, not over at the White House, about how I would decide any case."

Seated alone at a desk at the center of the hearing, Barrett said she was capable of setting aside her beliefs, including her Catholic faith, when studying and ruling on cases.

"I can, I have done that in my time on the Seventh Circuit (federal court of appeals), and if I'm confirmed to the Supreme Court I will do that too."

Barrett, known for her finely honed legal arguments, also said cases on major issues like gun rights or same-sex marriage do not automatically come before the court, but undergo a winding process that starts with a lower court challenge.

"Judges can't just wake up one day and say 'I have an agenda. I like guns, I hate guns, I like abortion, I hate abortion,' and walk in like a royal queen and impose their will on the world," Barrett said.

And while she expressed praise for her judicial mentor, the late justice Antonin Scalia, she stressed she would be an independent jurist.

"If I'm confirmed, you would not be getting Justice Scalia, you would be getting Justice Barrett," she said. 

Democrats have warned that Barrett has made clear in her writings and words that she would seek to overturn Roe v Wade and repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era law that has helped more than 20 million Americans obtain health insurance.

But the nominee refused to signal how she could rule on such issues.

"If I expressed a view on a precedent one way or another... it signals to litigants that I might tilt one way or another in a pending case," she said.

"It's distressing not to get a straight answer," Feinstein replied.

Barrett was tapped last month by Trump to succeed liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on September 18.

Republicans revel in the prospect of Barrett joining the bench, where conservatives now occupy five of nine seats and her confirmation could cement the court's rightward tilt for decades.

Democrats have painted Barrett as a direct threat to the Affordable Care Act and voiced concern her appointment is being rammed through in time for the court to hear a challenge to the law on November 10.

But Barrett pushed back.

"I am not hostile to the ACA," she told Senate Democrat Dick Durbin. "I apply the law, I follow the law, you make the policy."