'Power grab': how Republican hardball gave us Amy Coney Barrett

David Smith in Washington
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

The almost certain confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court on Monday represents a “power grab” by Republicans facing possible wipeout at the ballot box, activists and analysts say.

Related: Revealed: ex-members of Amy Coney Barrett faith group tell of trauma and sexual abuse

Republicans on the Senate judiciary committee shrugged off a Democratic boycott on Thursday to advance Barrett’s nomination to the full Senate, which will vote little more than a week before the presidential election. If confirmed, Barrett could be sworn in as a justice almost immediately.

To critics, the rushed process represents one of the most naked power plays yet by a party which, confronting dismal opinion polls, is weaponizing unelected judges to compensate for setbacks in elections. Even as they contemplate the loss of political power, Republicans are poised to cement judicial power for generations.

“This is like the last gasp by the Republican party to try to lock in their minority rule,” said Christopher Kang, co-founder and chief counsel of the progressive group Demand Justice. “They’re potentially just days away from not only losing the White House but also the Senate, maybe even resoundingly, and so they’re trying to do everything they can to consolidate on the supreme court a Trump supermajority for decades to come.”

The only rule Republicans play by is: the people who win make the rules. Power talks, losers walk

Bill Maher

Under Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Republicans have built a reputation for ruthless bare knuckle tactics Democrats struggle to combat. They blocked swaths of Barack Obama’s legislative agenda and in 2016 refused to grant a hearing to his supreme court nominee Merrick Garland, arguing that it was an election year so the voters should decide.

In 2018, when the conservative nominee Brett Kavanaugh faced credible allegations of sexual assault, Republicans ignored fierce protests and rammed his appointment through. And when liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last month, Donald Trump moved like lightning to replace her with Barrett, 48, a lifetime appointment who would tilt America’s highest court to a 6-3 conservative majority.

It was another example of Republican hardball – audacious, shameless and devastatingly effective.

Comedian Bill Maher told viewers of his HBO show: “If you haven’t gotten it yet, this kind of completely bald-faced premeditated hypocrisy should make it clear. There’s no catching them in an inconsistency. They don’t care because it’s all and only about power. The only rule Republicans play by is: the people who win make the rules. Power talks, losers walk.”

Democrats cried foul, pointing out that the Senate has never confirmed a supreme court nominee so close to a presidential election. They were whistling in the wind. During committee hearings Barrett swerved most of their questions, refusing to commit herself on abortion, the transfer or power or the climate crisis.

Kang said: “The process was so rushed and she was far more evasive and refused to answer more questions than any other nominee. That was a little bit jarring, if not surprising, but it shows how little respect Republicans have not only for the Senate but the supreme court itself. The Republican party is very blatantly just treating the supreme court as another political branch of government.”

Republicans’ attempt to assert their raw political partisan power could end up backfiring spectacularly

Christopher Kang

Demand Justice has called for Democrats to fight back by expanding the court, noting that its size has been changed seven times before. Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has said he will appoint a bipartisan commission to examine such proposals.

Kang predicted: “Republicans’ attempt to assert their raw political partisan power grab to get a sixth seat on the court, when they already have five, could end up backfiring spectacularly on them and they could be on the losing side of a 7-6 supreme court before they know it.”

All 12 Republicans on the judiciary committee voted in favour of Barrett. Ted Cruz of Texas hailed perhaps the “single most important accomplishment” of Trump’s presidency. Democrats displayed posters at their desks, of Americans who benefited from Obama’s Affordable Care Act which they warn Barrett could help strike down.

Democrats have also warned that if Trump follows through on his threat to dispute the outcome of the 3 November election, it might go before Barrett and other members of the supreme court for a final ruling, just like the 2000 election between George W Bush and Al Gore.

Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, described Barrett’s probable confirmation as a “‘power grab’ in every relevant sense of the term, especially in light of President Trump’s open concession that he appointed judge Coney Barrett in part to ensure her ability to vote in his favour should his re-election as president end up turning on a case the supreme court would need to resolve in order to give him an electoral college victory in the face of a national popular defeat.”

Related: Democrats are resigned to losing the supreme court battle – but set on winning the war

Trump has appointed more than 200 federal judges, likely to be his most lasting legacy whether he serves one term or two. Critics suggest the courts represent the last bulwark of Republican minority rule and the Barrett episode is starkly indicative of a party that has lost its ideological and ethical moorings and now treats power as an end in itself.

Kurt Bardella, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said Republicans have betrayed their claims to be the party of fiscal responsibility, pro-life principles, small government and congressional oversight.

“When a party diverges from itself on so many issues so many times,” he said, “it tells you they don’t actually have any moral convictions or principles that guide them. Only the pursuit of power.”