President Trump named U.S. Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his pick Saturday for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, a move that could further shift it to the right and reshape American law on abortion, healthcare, religion and guns for a generation.
A confirmation vote may occur before the election.
The announcement comes just eight days after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had become a liberal icon in her decades on the bench, and 38 days before the presidential election. Voting has already begun in dozens of states.
Never before has a Supreme Court justice been nominated or confirmed so close to a presidential election.
If Trump succeeds in replacing Ginsburg with a conservative, the new justice would join five other Republican appointees, including two named by Trump.
Trump teased his choice for days, even polling supporters at a rally about whether to choose a woman. The prime-time announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House was attended by high-profile Republicans and Barrett’s husband and their seven children.
Trump called Barrett “one of our nation’s most brilliant and gifted legal minds.”
“I looked and I studied and you are very eminently qualified for this job. You are going to be fantastic,” Trump said.
Trump noted that Barrett would be the first mother of school-aged children to serve on the Supreme Court.
Barrett, a 48-year-old former law clerk for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, was a longtime law professor at the University of Notre Dame before Trump chose her for the circuit court in 2017. She was previously vetted for the vacant Supreme Court seat in 2018 that was filled instead by Brett M. Kavanaugh, so Republicans believe she can move quickly through the process.
She is backed by the Federalist Society, like many of the judicial nominees Trump has promised to pick from. In her legal writing and three years on the appeals court, Barrett hinted that she would rule with the most conservative justices on disputes over civil rights, voting rights, free speech and separation of church and state.
Barrett has also expressed willingness to overturn precedents that she believes are not in line with the Constitution, which conservative supporters and liberal opponents see as an indicator she would support overturning the 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling that established the right
of women to have an abortion.
Barrett opened her remarks with a tribute to Ginsburg.
“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 Ruth Bader Ginsburg to mark the end of a great American life,” she said.
She also tied herself to Scalia, her mentor, saying, “His judicial philosophy is mine too; a judge must apply the law as written. Judges are not policymakers, and they must be resolute in setting aside any policy views they might hold.”
The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to waste no time in confirming Trump’s pick. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pledged to hold a vote on the floor this year, and it is likely to occur before the Nov. 3 election.
“The Court, the Senate, and the American people — not to mention the nominee and her family — deserve a fair process that is focused on Judge Barrett’s qualifications. I hope all 100 senators will treat this serious process with the dignity and respect it should command,” McConnell said in a statement following the announcement.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said later Saturday that confirmation hearings would begin Oct. 12 and would last three to four days.
Senators will begin sitting down with the nominee for private one-on-one discussions in the coming week. And some Senate Republicans are floating holding a vote Oct. 29.
Trump said last week that it’s important for the Senate to move quickly to install a ninth justice because the results of the 2020 election may be challenged in court. If a 4-4 split were to occur in the Supreme Court, a lower court ruling would stand.
Only two of 53 Republican senators — Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — have said they don’t think the Senate should vote on a Supreme Court nominee before election day, leaving McConnell with the simple majority needed to approve a justice without Democratic support.
Moving on the nomination before the election avoids potential risks of a confirmation in the lame-duck period before the president is sworn in, such as losing a Republican seat in the Arizona special election. Under Arizona law, the winner can be sworn in before the next Congress starts, narrowing Republicans’ majority.
Republicans would also probably be criticized if they lose control of the Senate or White House in the election, but confirm a justice anyway.
Ginsburg dictated a statement to her granddaughter in the days before her death that “my most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
Conservative groups have pledged millions of dollars to defend Barrett in the weeks to come. Liberal groups have similarly promised millions of dollars in an effort to block the confirmation.
Barrett has already had a run-in with the highest ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who pressed Barrett at her 2017 confirmation hearing on whether her Catholic faith might affect her ability to be a fair judge.
Republicans began attempting to frame opposition to Barrett as about her faith even before Trump made his announcement. Democrats are expected to make the confirmation fight about how a 6-3 conservative tilt of the court could lead to changes to healthcare or abortion rights.
“The American people should make no mistake — a vote by any senator for Judge Amy Coney Barrett is a vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act and eliminate protections for millions of Americans with preexisting conditions,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement after the announcement. The court is scheduled to hear arguments in a case challenging the President Obama-era healthcare law the week after the election.
Democrats have lambasted what they call a rush to fill the seat, especially after Senate Republicans blocked Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, from having a hearing or a vote when he was nominated in February 2016 because it was an election year.
“The American people deserve a voice in such a momentous decision,” McConnell said then. McConnell has said the 2020 situation is different regardless of proximity to the election because the Senate and the White House are controlled by the same party.
Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) called it a “blatant power grab” meant to subvert the will of voters.
“Just four years ago, Leader McConnell held open a Supreme Court seat for 10 months before a presidential election because he said time and again that, in an election year, we must let the American people decide. If confirming a Supreme Court justice 10 months prior to a presidential election would have denied the American people a voice, then isn’t he now denying the American people a voice by rushing to confirm a justice just weeks before a presidential election?” Jones said in a statement.
Democrats are expected to use a series of procedural tactics to draw out the confirmation process, and keep vulnerable Republican senators in Washington in the weeks before the election, but barring a disqualifying surprise that causes two more Republicans to defect there is little Democrats can do to stop a confirmation. McConnell eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in 2017, which means it takes only 51 senators to secure a lifetime appointment to the bench.
Democrats had considered boycotting the confirmation hearings in a show of defiance, although that appears unlikely.
“I’m going to do that which will tell the public what this person is going to do — that’s strike down the Affordable Care Act and No. 2 is to go after Roe vs. Wade,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “I think it’s very important for the American people to know that the next nominee will have those positions, even if they will do everything to say ‘no, no, no.’”
Polls in recent days show Americans of all political persuasions prefer to have the winner of the election fill the seat.
Times staff writers Jennifer Haberkorn and Noah Bierman contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.