Editor’s note: This story has been updated.
Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is vowing to bring no “agenda” to the court, batting back senators’ questions Tuesday on abortion, gun rights and the November election, insisting she would take a conservative approach to the law but decide cases as they come.
“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 at the second day of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The 48-year-old appellate court judge, nominated by President Donald Trump and on track for quick confirmation before the Nov. 3 election, also declined to commit to recusing herself from any cases arising from that election.
“I can’t offer an opinion on recusal without short-circuiting that entire process,” she said.
Barrett was on Capitol Hill for a second day of hearings, the mood quickly shifting to a more confrontational tone from opening day. She was grilled in 30-minute segments by Democrats strongly opposed to Trump’s nominee yet virtually powerless to stop her. Republicans are rushing her to confirmation before Election Day.
Trump has said he wants the ninth member on the court to handle any cases that may arise. But Barrett said it would be a “gross violation” of judicial independence to make a commitment on how she’d rule. She insisted she has not spoken to the president or his team about how she would handle such cases.
Earlier, a frustrated Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the panel, all but implored the nominee to be more specific about how she would handle landmark abortion cases, including Roe v. Wade and the follow-up Pennsylvania case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which affirmed it in large part.
“It’s distressing not to get a good answer,” Feinstein told the judge.
Barrett told the senator she could not pre-commit to an approach.
“I don’t have an agenda to try to overrule Casey,” the judge said. “I have an agenda to stick to the rule of law and decide cases as they come.”
The committee chairman, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., gaveled open the session under coronavirus protocols with questioning focusing on health care and ending the Affordable Care Act.
Graham also quickly asked if the Catholic judge would be able to shelve her personal beliefs to adhere to law.
“I can. I have done that,” she said. “I will do that still.”
Graham praised her as a conservative woman of faith and the best possible nominee Trump could have chosen.
“I will do everything I can to make sure that you have a seat at the table. And that table is the Supreme Court,” Graham said.
The Senate, led by Trump’s Republican allies, is pushing Barrett’s nomination to a quick vote before Nov. 3, and ahead of the latest challenge to the “Obamacare” Affordable Care Act, which the Supreme Court is to hear a week after the election.
Barrett, a former law professor, described herself as taking a conservative, originalist approach to the Constitution – “text as text” – and believes a judge “doesn’t infuse her own meaning into it.”
The Indiana judge, accompanied by her family, told the senators that while she admires the late Justice Antonin Scalia, her mentor for whom she once clerked, she would bring her own approach to the high court. “You would not be getting Justice Scalia, you would be getting Justice Barrett,” she said.
Republicans also hope to seat Barrett quickly enough to hear any legal challenges after the election. Democrats are demanding that she pledge not to take part in any election case, but she has made no such commitment.
One of the two Republicans on the panel who tested positive for COVID-19, Sen. Thom Tillis, joined the committee for the first time Tuesday after ending quarantine.
Barrett presented her approach to the law as conservative and fair on Monday at the start of fast-tracked confirmation hearings. Democrats cast her as a threat to Americans’ health care coverage during the coronavirus pandemic.
With her husband and six of their seven children behind her in a hearing room off-limits to the public and altered for COVID-19 risks, Barrett delivered views on the opening day at odds with the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal icon whose seat Trump nominated her to fill.
“Courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life,” declared the 48-year-old federal appeals court judge, removing the protective mask she wore most of the day to read from a prepared statement.
Americans “deserve an independent Supreme Court that interprets our Constitution and laws as they are written,” Barrett told the committee.
Ginsburg’s legacy was felt throughout Monday’s session, with some Democrats wearing lapel pins with her likeness. Barrett also praised the liberal icon, saying she was “forever grateful” for Ginsburg’s trailblazing path as a woman on the court.
Yet Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, warned that Barrett’s nomination puts in jeopardy everything Ginsburg fought to protect.
Testifying from her office because of the pandemic, Harris said that the court is “often the last refuge for equal justice” and that not only health care but voting rights, workers’ rights, abortion rights and the very idea of justice are at stake.
Barring a dramatic development, Republicans appear to have the votes to confirm Barrett to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court, and they spent their time portraying her as a thoughtful judge with impeccable credentials. She would be Trump’s third justice.
Underscoring the Republicans’ confidence, Graham set an initial committee vote on the nomination for Thursday, even before the last day of hearings wrapped, which would allow final approval by the panel for one week later and a vote for confirmation by the full Senate on Oct. 26.
Protesters rallied outside the Senate buildings with the hearing room largely closed to the public.
Democrats already were enraged that Republicans are moving so quickly, having refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee after Scalia’s death in February 2016, well before that year’s election.