Conservative U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear Obamacare challenge

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday is set to hear arguments in a bid by Republican-governed states backed by President Donald Trump’s administration to strike down the Obamacare healthcare law, even as Joe Biden prepares to replace Trump in January.

Key priorities set by the Democratic president-elect included expanding healthcare access and buttressing Obamacare, the 2010 law formally called the Affordable Care Act that Republicans for years have sought to invalidate. The law was the signature domestic policy achievement of former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president.

Although the court now has a 6-3 conservative majority bolstered by the Senate confirmation last month of Trump’s third appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, most legal experts think it would stop short of a seismic ruling striking down the law. The Supreme Court in 2012 and 2015 fended off previous Republican challenges to Obamacare.

Biden and other Democrats have criticized Republican efforts to strike down the law in the midst of a deadly coronavirus pandemic.

If Obamacare were to be struck down, up to 20 million Americans could lose their medical insurance and insurers could once again refuse to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions. Obamacare expanded public healthcare programs and created marketplaces for private insurance.

“Abolishing the Affordable Care Act would be deeply damaging to the American health care system and public health,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the nonprofit American Public Health Association, said in a statement.

The justices will hear an expanded 80-minute oral argument by teleconference due to the pandemic.

The impetus for the Supreme Court case was a 2018 ruling by a federal judge in Texas that Obamacare as currently structured in light of a key Republican-backed change made by Congress violates the U.S. Constitution and is invalid in its entirety.

The justices in March agreed to hear an appeal filed by a coalition of Democratic-led states and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives defending Obamacare.

They asked the justices to overturn a ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that declared that the law’s “individual mandate” that required people to obtain health insurance ran afoul of the Constitution. Republican states led by Texas and backed by Trump’s administration have asked the justices to throw out the law.

If the individual mandate is struck down “then it necessarily follows that the rest of the ACA must also fall,” Trump administration’s lawyers argued in court papers.

The Supreme Court in 2012 upheld most Obamacare provisions including the individual mandate, which required people to obtain insurance or pay a financial penalty. The court defined this penalty as a tax and thus found the law permissible under the Constitution’s provision empowering Congress to levy taxes.

In 2017, Trump signed a Republican-backed law tax that eliminated the financial penalty under the individual mandate, which gave rise to the Republican lawsuit. The tax law meant the individual mandate could no longer be interpreted as a tax provision and was therefore unlawful, the Republican challengers argued.

Democrats made the Republican threat to Obamacare a central feature of their opposition to Barrett’s confirmation to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Barrett, when she was a law professor, previously indicated she backed the challengers in the two previous Obamacare cases that reached the Supreme Court.

In recent cases with conservative justices in the majority, the court has declined to strike down an entire statute just because one part was unlawful.

“Constitutional litigation is not a game of gotcha against Congress, where litigants can ride a discrete constitutional flaw in a statute to take down the whole, otherwise constitutional statute,” conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, another Trump appointee, wrote in a ruling earlier this year.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump’s appointee Barrett takes part in first Supreme Court arguments

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Amy Coney Barrett participated in her first case as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, with President Donald Trump’s appointee welcomed by Chief Justice John Roberts before questioning one of the lawyers in a dispute in which an environmental group is seeking government documents.

Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, Barrett made her debut not in a public session in the ornate courtroom where the justices usually hear cases but rather in a teleconference format, with a live audio feed available to the public.

Although Barrett officially started work last Tuesday, she did not participate in Friday’s private conference in which the justices discussed what new cases to hear because she was preparing for this week’s arguments, a court spokeswoman said.

“It gives me great pleasure on behalf of myself and my colleagues to welcome Justice Barrett to the court,” Chief Justice John Roberts said at the outset. “… Justice Barrett, we wish you a long and happy career in our common calling.”

With the justices taking turn by seniority, Barrett was the last to weigh in on the case brought by the Sierra Club seeking documents related to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s consideration of a regulation finalized in 2014. The agency concluded that the environmental regulation for cooling water intake structures that are used by power plants and other industrial facilities would not adversely affect endangered species, including fish, turtles and shellfish.

Barrett, following fellow Trump appointee Justice Brett Kavanaugh, continued with his line of questioning on how courts determine which internal agency documents are subject to a federal law called the Freedom of Information Act, which lets people request certain materials.

“What other factors would a court consider?” Barrett asked, in relation to how courts decide whether a draft document, as opposed to a final report, can be sought as part of such a request.

A federal judge in California ruled in 2017 that 11 documents had to be disclosed. The government appealed and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 ruled partly for the government but still found that nine documents had to be released.

It was the first of two cases on Monday. The second was an employment benefits dispute involving a former railroad worker.

The Republican-led Senate confirmed Barrett one week ago, with Democrats strongly opposed. Trump on Sept. 26 announced Barrett as his nominee to replace liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died of cancer on Sept. 18. Barrett previously was appointed by Trump as a federal appeals court judge in 2017 after she served as a law professor at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

Barrett’s confirmation expanded the Supreme Court’s conservative majority to 6-3.

Monday’s case was argued a day before the U.S. election in which the Republican president is seeking a second term in office against Democratic challenger Joe Biden. In campaign rallies, Trump has touted his appointment of Barrett, receiving applause from his supporters.

No Supreme Court justice has ever been confirmed so close to a presidential election. At 48, Barrett could serve in her lifetime post for decades alongside Trump’s two other Supreme Court appointees, Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.

The first major case in which Barrett will take part comes on Wednesday when the court hears a religious rights dispute involving the city of Philadelphia’s refusal to place children for foster care with a Catholic agency that bars same-sex couples from serving as foster parents.

Next week, the court hears arguments in litigation in which Trump and Republican-governed states are seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 healthcare law also called Obamacare that has helped millions of Americans obtain medical insurance.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Polarized electorate, mail-in ballots could spark post-election legal ‘fight of our lives’

By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Del (Reuters) – U.S. Election Day on Tuesday has all the ingredients for a drawn-out court battle over its outcome: a highly polarized electorate, a record number of mail-in ballots and some Supreme Court justices who appear ready to step in if there is a closely contested presidential race.

The only missing element that would send both sides to the courthouse would be a razor-thin result in a battleground state.

“If it comes down to Pennsylvania and Florida I think we’ll be in the legal fight of our lives,” said Jessica Levinson, who teaches election law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Election disputes are not unusual but they are generally confined to local or statewide races, say election law experts.

This year, in the months leading up to the Nov. 3 showdown between Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, the coronavirus pandemic fueled hundreds of legal challenges over everything from witness signatures, U.S. mail postmarks and the use of drop boxes for ballots.

“As soon as the election is over,” Trump told reporters on Sunday, “we’re going in with our lawyers.”

Two court rulings on deadlines for counting mail-in ballots have increased the likelihood of post-election court battles in the event of close outcomes in Pennsylvania and another crucial state, Minnesota, the experts said.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Oct. 29 that Minnesota’s plan to extend the deadline for counting mail-in ballots was an unconstitutional maneuver by Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat.

Minnesota officials were instructed to “segregate” absentee ballots received after Nov. 3.

Simon has said officials will not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but further litigation in the lower courts will determine whether those ballots will be counted.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 28, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a ruling by Pennsylvania’s top court that allowed officials to count mail-in ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and received up to three days later.

The justices said there was not enough time to review the state court ruling. As in Minnesota, Pennsylvania officials will segregate those ballots, teeing up a potential court battle in the event of a close election.

If any post-election battles are heard by the Supreme Court, it will have a 6-3 conservative majority after Trump-appointed Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed on Oct. 26. Three of the justices were appointed by Trump.

The president said in September that he wanted his nominee confirmed because the election “will end up in the Supreme Court and I think it’s very important that we have nine justices.”

Election law specialists said the likelihood of the Supreme Court deciding the next president would require an outcome amounting to a tie in a state that would tip the election to one candidate or the other.

“Some of the president’s statements suggest he thinks the Supreme Court would simply be asked to decide who won the election,” said Adav Noti, senior director of trial litigation at Campaign Legal Center. “That’s not how election litigation works.”

Only one presidential election has been decided in the courts in the past 140 years. In 2000, Republican George W. Bush defeated Al Gore, a Democrat, who conceded after losing a decision at the U.S. Supreme Court over a recount in Florida.

Elections are governed by state laws and disputes generally play out in state courts where campaigns fight over recounts and the validity of voter registrations.

But in recent decisions, a minority of conservative Supreme Court justices appear to be setting the stage to aggressively review state courts when they are interpreting their own state’s constitutional voting protections.

On Oct. 26, the court kept in place Wisconsin’s policy requiring mail-in ballots to arrive by Election Day. Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a Trump appointee, wrote in an opinion accompanying the court’s action that “under the U.S. Constitution, the state courts do not have a blank check to rewrite state election laws for federal elections.”

Some scholars said the recent language could encourage campaigns to take an election challenge to the Supreme Court.

“It’s an invitation to challenge anything done to administer an election in a state that isn’t jot or tittle with what the legislature said to do,” Joshua Geltzer, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy & Protection. “And that’s virtually everything.”

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Daniel Wallis)

Trump’s Supreme Court pick lauded as ‘unashamedly pro-life’ in hearing’s third day

By Lawrence Hurley, Patricia Zengerle and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett faced fresh questioning at her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, with the panel’s Republican chairman lauding her as “unashamedly pro-life” even as Democrats worry that she could vote to overturn the 1973 ruling legalizing abortion nationwide.

Barrett, a conservative federal appellate judge who is the Republican president’s third selection for a lifetime job on the top U.S. judicial body, was in the third day of her four-day Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.

“This is history being made folks,” Senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the panel, said. “This is the first time in American history that we’ve nominated a woman who is unashamedly pro-life and embraces her faith without apology, and she’s going to the court. A seat at the table is waiting for you.”

“It will be a great signal to all young women who share your view of the world,” Graham added.

Under questioning by Graham, Barrett reiterated her comments from Tuesday that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to abortion was not a “super-precedent” that could never potentially be overturned.

Barrett, a devout Catholic and a favorite of religious conservatives, told the committee on Tuesday she could set aside her religious beliefs in making judicial decisions.

Barrett would be the fifth woman to serve on the court and the second Republican appointee.

During 11 hours of questioning on Tuesday, she sidestepped questions on contentious social issues and told the committee she had no agenda on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. Democrats say Barrett’s confirmation would threaten healthcare for millions of Americans and they have said the Senate should not consider filling the vacancy until after the presidential election.

Barrett, 48, would tilt the court even further to the right, giving conservative justices a 6-3 majority. Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority, making Barrett’s confirmation a virtual certainty.

Barrett has declined to say whether she would recuse herself from the major Obamacare case to be argued on Nov. 10, in which Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate the law. She said the case centers on a different legal issue than two previous Supreme Court rulings that upheld Obamacare that she has criticized.

In response to Democratic suggestions that she would vote to strike the entire law down if one part is found to be unlawful, Barrett on Wednesday told Graham that when judges address the legal question raised in the case, the “presumption” is that Congress did not intend the whole statute to fall.

Barrett agreed with Graham that if a statute can be saved, it is a judge’s duty to do so. Barrett indicated she was in favor of a broad reading of the “severability doctrine” in which courts assume that when one provision of a law is unlawful, Congress would want the rest of the statute to remain in place.

“I think insofar as it tries to effectuate what Congress would have wanted, it’s the court and Congress working hand in hand,” Barrett said of the doctrine.

Barrett on Tuesday also refused to say whether the 2015 ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide was wrongly decided. Barrett deflected Democrats’ questions about whether she would participate in any dispute resulting from the Nov. 3 presidential election, promising only to follow rules giving justices the final say on recusal.

Trump has urged the Senate, controlled by his fellow Republicans, to confirm Barrett before Election Day. Trump has said he expects the Supreme Court to decide the election’s outcome as he faces Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

The hearing is scheduled to end on Thursday with testimony from outside witnesses, with Republicans already preparing for committee vote next week.

Trump nominated Barrett to a lifetime post on the court on Sept. 26 to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The four-day confirmation hearing is a key step before a full Senate vote due by the end of October on Barrett’s confirmation.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court rebuffs Planned Parenthood defunding case

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday turned away South Carolina’s bid to cut off public funding to Planned Parenthood, the latest case involving a conservative state seeking to deprive the women’s healthcare and abortion provider of government money.

The justices declined to hear South Carolina’s appeal of a lower court ruling that prevented the state from blocking funding under the Medicaid program to Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, the organization’s regional affiliate.

Planned Parenthood South Atlantic operates clinics in Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina, where it provides physical exams, cancer and other health screenings, as well as abortions. Each year the clinics serve hundreds of patients who receive Medicaid, a government health insurance program for low-income Americans.

Numerous Republican-governed states have pursued direct and indirect restrictions involving abortion. Planned Parenthood often is targeted by anti-abortion activists. Planned Parenthood is the largest single provider of abortions in the United States and also receives millions of dollars in public funding for other healthcare services.

Planned Parenthood and Medicaid patient Julie Edwards sued the state’s Department of Health and Human Services in 2018 after officials ended the organization’s participation in the state Medicaid program.

The state took the action after Governor Henry McMaster, a Republican, issued executive orders declaring that any abortion provider would be unqualified to provide family planning services and cutting off state funding to them. The state’s action forced Planned Parenthood to turn away Medicaid patients seeking healthcare services, according to a court filing.

South Carolina already did not provide Medicaid reimbursements for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or if the mother’s life was in danger, as required by federal law.

The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the state’s decision in 2019, saying that by ending Planned Parenthood’s Medicaid agreement for reasons unrelated to professional competency, the state violated Edwards’ right under the federal Medicaid Act to receive medical assistance from any institution that is “qualified to perform the service.”

In appealing to the Supreme Court, the state’s health department said Medicaid recipients do not have a right to challenge a state’s determination that a specific provider is not qualified to provide certain medical services.

The Supreme Court in 2018 rejected similar appeals by Louisiana and Kansas seeking to terminate Planned Parenthood’s Medicaid funding. At that time, three conservative justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – said the court should have heard the states’ appeals.

President Donald Trump has asked the Senate to confirm his Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a favorite among religious conservatives, before the Nov. 3 election. Barrett was picked to replace liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a supporter of abortion rights who died on Sept. 18.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung and Jan Wolfe; editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool)

Trump’s Supreme Court nominee says her religious views would not guide decisions

By Lawrence Hurley, Patricia Zengerle and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Tuesday began the first of two days of direct questioning from U.S. senators, telling senators that her religious views would not affect her decisions on the bench.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing presents Barrett with a chance to respond to Democratic lawmakers who have been unified in opposing her primarily on what they say would be her role in undermining the Obamacare healthcare law and its protection for patients with pre-existing conditions.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the committee’s chairman, opened the questioning by asking her about her conservative legal philosophy known as originalism, in which laws and the Constitution are interpreted based on the meaning they had at the time they were enacted.

“That meaning doesn’t change over time and it’s not for me to update it or infuse my own policy views into it,” Barrett said.

Graham asked Barrett, a devout Catholic and a favorite of religious conservatives, whether she could set aside her religious beliefs in making decisions as a justice.

“I can,” Barrett said.

Barrett called the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom she served as a clerk two decades ago, as her mentor, but said she would not always rule the same way as him.

“You would not be getting Justice Scalia, you would be getting Justice Barrett. That is so because originalists don’t always agree,” she said.

Graham will be followed by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s top Democrat. Barrett sat alone at a table facing the senators.

Barrett was nominated to a lifetime post on the court on Sept. 26 by Trump to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Barrett could be on the Supreme Court in time for the Nov. 10 arguments in a case in which Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate the 2010 Affordable Care Act, Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement that has enabled millions of Americans to obtain medical coverage.

Barrett has criticized a 2012 Supreme Court ruling authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts that upheld the law, popularly known as Obamacare.

Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority, leaving Democrats with little to no chance of blocking Barrett’s confirmation.

If confirmed, Barrett, 48, would tilt the Supreme Court further to the right and give conservative justices a 6-3 majority, making even the unexpected victories on which liberals have prevailed in recent years, including abortion and gay rights, rarer still. She is Trump’s third Supreme Court appointment.

Trump’s nomination of Barrett came late in an election cycle when Republican control of both the White House and Senate is at stake. The confirmation hearing format has changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the public excluded and some senators participating remotely.

Democrats, including vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, on the first day of the hearing zeroed in on the fate of Obamacare, as Republicans push to confirm Barrett before the Nov. 3 presidential election between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

The hearing is a key step before a full Senate vote by the end of October on Barrett’s confirmation to a lifetime job on the court.

Republicans have sought to portray Democrats as attacking Barrett, a devout Roman Catholic, on religious grounds, although the Democrats have so far steered clear of doing so.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

Harris, fellow Democrats target Trump Supreme Court nominee on Obamacare

By Lawrence Hurley and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic senators including vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris on Monday painted President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as a threat to the Obamacare healthcare law during a deadly pandemic and denounced the Republican drive to approve her before the Nov. 3 U.S. election.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee began its four-day confirmation hearing for Barrett, Democrats voiced their strong opposition to the nomination even though they have little hope of derailing her nomination in the Republican-led Senate.

Barrett, a conservative appellate court judge nominated to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sat at a table facing the senators wearing a black face mask amid the pandemic as senators made opening statements. Barrett removed the mask when she was sworn in and delivered her own opening statement.

“I believe Americans of all backgrounds deserve an independent Supreme Court that interprets our Constitution and laws as they are written,” Barrett said, reading from prepared remarks that had been made public on Sunday, with her husband and seven children sitting behind her.

Barrett’s confirmation would give the court a 6-3 conservative majority that could lead to rulings rolling back abortion rights, expanding religious and gun rights, and upholding voting restrictions, among other issues.

But it was the fate of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement that has enabled millions of Americans to obtain medical coverage, that was the focus of Harris and her fellow Democrats. Barrett has criticized a 2012 Supreme Court ruling authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts that upheld Obamacare.

Harris, the running mate of Trump’s Democratic election opponent Joe Biden, called the confirmation process so near the election “illegitimate.”

“I do believe this hearing is a clear attempt to jam through a Supreme Court nominee who will take away healthcare from millions of people during a deadly pandemic that has already killed more than 214,000 Americans,” Harris said, speaking via a video link.

“A clear majority of Americans want whomever wins the election to fill this seat and my Republican colleagues know that. Yet they are deliberately defying the will of the people in their attempt to roll back the rights and protections provided under the Affordable Care Act,” Harris said.

Barrett could be on the Supreme Court in time to participate in a case due to be argued on Nov. 10 in which Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate Obamacare.

Barrett will face marathon questioning from senators on Tuesday and Wednesday. The hearing is a key step before a full Senate vote by the end of October on her confirmation to a lifetime job on the court. Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority so Barrett’s confirmation seems almost certain.

A pivotal Obamacare provision that would be thrown out if the court strikes the law down bars insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions. In the hearing room, Democrats displayed posters of patients who could lose their medical coverage if Obamacare is invalidated, with senators recounting their individual stories.

Repeated Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare in Congress have fallen short, and Republicans have taken the effort to the courts.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz said the Democratic focus on healthcare and other policy issues showed they were not contesting Barrett’s qualifications to serve as a justice.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who chairs the committee, opened the hearing by saying it would be “a long contentious week” but implored senators to make the proceedings respectful.

“Let’s remember, the world is watching,” Graham added.

“This is probably not about persuading each other, unless something really dramatic happens. All Republicans will vote yes and all Democrats will vote no,” Graham said.

‘MAD RUSH’

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy condemned the Republican “mad rush” to fill the vacancy.

“They see the ability to take the courts from being independent to making them instead an arm of the far right and the Republican Party, with the potential to accomplish in courts what they have failed to accomplish by votes in the halls of Congress. And at the top of the hit list is the Affordable Care Act,” Leahy said.

Graham defended the Republican approach even while acknowledging that four years earlier they had refused to act on Obama’s nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy because it was an election year, and that no Supreme Court nominee had a confirmation process so close to an election.

The Senate’s Republican leaders rejected Democratic pleas to delay the hearing over COVID-19 concerns.

Due to the pandemic, Harris and some other senators participated remotely. Republican Senator Mike Lee attended in person nine days after revealing he head tested positive for the coronavirus, arriving wearing a light-blue surgical mask. He took off the mask while giving his opening statement.

Barrett is a devout Catholic who has expressed opposition to abortion. Christian conservative activists long have hoped for the court to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Democratic Senator Cory Booker said that “Senate Republicans have found a nominee in Judge Barrett who they know will do what they couldn’t do – subvert the will of the American people and overturn Roe v. Wade.”

Republicans sought to portray the Democrats as attacking Barrett on religious grounds, though the Democrats steered clear of doing so. Speaking to reporters in Delaware, Biden said Barrett’s Catholic faith should not be considered during the confirmation process. Biden was the first Catholic U.S. vice president.

“This nominee said she wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. The president wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act,” Biden said. “Let’s keep our eye on the ball.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Andrew Chung and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Will Dunham)

Senate hearing begins for Supreme Court nominee Barrett

By Lawrence Hurley, Andrew Chung and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday opened its four-day confirmation hearing for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as his fellow Republicans seek to place her on the bench ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election in the face of firm Democratic opposition.

The hearing for the conservative appellate court judge, picked by Trump to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, started with senators making opening statements. Barrett herself will make her own opening statement after the 22 members of the committee are given a chance to speak.

As a result of health concerns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, not all the senators will participate in person. Those present in the hearing room on Capitol Hill, which will include Barrett and her family, will be socially distanced and follow other guidelines.

Barrett sat at a table facing the senators wearing a face mask. Her children sat behind her, also wearing protective masks, as the hearing got underway.

Each senator has the final call on whether to attend in person. Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate, is among those participating remotely.

The Senate’s Republican leaders rejected Democratic pleas to delay the hearing after two Republican Judiciary Committee members and Trump himself tested positive for the coronavirus in the days following the Sept. 26 White House event at which the president announced Barrett as the nominee.

The hearing is a key step before a final full Senate vote by the end of October on her nomination for a lifetime job on the court.

Barrett is expected to tell senators that as a judge she seeks to “reach the result required by the law, whatever my own preferences might be,” according to a copy of her prepared remarks released on Sunday.

Barrett, 48, said in the statement that it will be an “honor of a lifetime” to serve alongside the current eight justices.

Her confirmation would create a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that could lead to rulings rolling back abortion rights, expanding religious and gun rights, and upholding Republican-backed voting restrictions, among other issues.

Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority so Barrett’s confirmation seems almost certain.

Democrats have focused their criticism so far on Barrett’s potentially vital role in a case pending before the Supreme Court in which Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act healthcare law, often called Obamacare.

One key provision bars insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

Democrats have called on Barrett to recuse herself from the case, saying she would have a conflict of interest because Trump has called for the law to be struck down.

They have also demanded that she step aside from any cases involving the presidential election because Trump has said the court is likely to have to settle cases over electoral disputes.

Trump, who is running for re-election against Biden, has indicated he would expect the court to rule in his favor if Barrett is confirmed.

Under existing rules, individual justices have the final say on whether they should recuse.

Barrett, a devout Catholic who has expressed opposition to abortion, is expected to face Democratic questioning on that issue too. Christian conservative activists long have hoped for the court to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Barrett will face questions from senators on Tuesday and Wednesday in lengthy all-day sessions. The hearing is due to conclude on Thursday with outside witnesses testifying about her qualifications.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

‘Full steam ahead:’ Senate Republicans to push court nominee despite Trump’s COVID-19 status

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s plan to begin confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Oct. 12 remain unchanged, despite President Donald Trump’s positive COVID-19 test result, a Senate aide said on Friday.

“Full steam ahead,” the aide to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham responded to Reuters, when asked if the hearing schedule for hearings to begin on Oct. 12 could change.

Graham spoke to Trump on Friday morning and said the first thing Trump asked was about was the Senate’s plan for his nominee’s confirmation, the aide added.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also said the Senate would advance Barrett’s confirmation but sounded a cautious note about the potential impact of COVID-19.

“I think we can move forward. Our biggest enemy, obviously, is … the coronavirus, keeping everybody healthy and well and in place to do our job,” McConnell told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt.

McConnell described the Senate’s decision on whether to confirm Barrett as being “front and center for the American people” and said the Senate would act after a committee recommendation due Oct. 22.

Barrett’s nomination faces fierce opposition from Senate Democrats and will face questions about her judicial philosophy and approach to the law when she comes before Graham’s panel.

Democrats argue the vacancy should be filled after the next president is chosen on Nov. 3, a view shared by a majority of Americans, according to recent national polls. Trump’s Republican allies, who hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, have vowed to follow a compressed timeline to confirm her before then.

Barrett, seen as a reliable conservative, would replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion of gender equality and other liberal causes who died on Sept. 18 at age 87. She previously sat for a hearing when she was appointed by Trump to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Chizu Nomiyama)