By Lawrence Hurley, Patricia Zengerle and Andrew Chung
President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett said on Tuesday she gave no commitments to the White House on how she would rule on Obamacare or election-related disputes and declined to tell senators whether she believes landmark rulings legalizing abortion and gay marriage were properly decided.
Barrett opted not to say whether she would step aside from taking part in a major Obamacare case to be argued on Nov. 10 or in any disputes arising from the Nov. 3 election – as Democrats have requested – as she answered questions for the first time on day two of her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.
The marathon questioning gave the conservative U.S. appellate judge a chance to respond to Democrats who oppose her because they fear she will cast a decisive vote in striking down the 2010 healthcare law formally called the Affordable Care Act and its protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
“I am not here on a mission to destroy the Affordable Care Act,” Barrett said. “I’m just here to apply the law and adhere to the rule of law.”
Trump has asked 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.
Barrett said no one at the White House sought a commitment from her on how she would rule on that or any issue.
“No one has elicited from me any commitment in a case or even brought up a commitment in a case. I am 100% committed to judicial independence from political pressure,” Barrett said.
While Democrats were persistent in their questioning, the hearing retained a respectful tone and Barrett remained even-tempered while nimbly sidestepping questions on her views on abortion, LGBT rights, gun control and voting rights.
In the Obamacare case, Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate the law. Barrett said the case centers upon a different legal issue than two previous Supreme Court rulings that upheld Obamacare that she has criticized.
The law, signed by Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, has enabled millions of Americans to obtain medical coverage. Democrats have blasted Trump for trying to kill Obamacare amid a deadly pandemic.
In declining to commit to stepping aside on politically charged cases in light of her nomination so near an election and comments made by Trump on the issues, Barrett said she would follow rules giving justices the final say on recusal amid questions about impartiality.
Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority, making Barrett’s confirmation a virtual certainty. If confirmed, Barrett, 48, would give conservatives a 6-3 Supreme Court majority. She is Trump’s third Supreme Court appointment.
Abortion rights advocates fear Barrett would vote to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. Asked about the ruling, Barrett said she would consider the usual factors on whether to overturn a precedent.
“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, you know, their will on the world,” Barrett said.
But Barrett indicated Roe v. Wade was not a “super-precedent” that could never potentially be overturned.
“I’m answering a lot of questions about Roe, which I think indicates Roe does not fall in that category. Scholars across the spectrum say that doesn’t mean that Roe should be overruled, but descriptively it does mean it is not a case that everyone has accepted,” Barrett said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s top Democrat, asked Barrett whether she agreed with her mentor, the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and should be overturned.
After Barrett sidestepped, Feinstein told her that “it’s distressing not to get a straight answer.”
Barrett, a devout Catholic and a favorite of religious conservatives, said she could set aside her religious beliefs in making judicial decisions.
“I do see as distinct my personal moral religious views, and my task of applying laws as a judge,” Barrett said, adding that she expected that as a nominee her religious faith would be “caricatured.”
Barrett also declined to say whether she agreed with Scalia that the 2015 Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide was wrongly decided.
“I have no agenda and I do want to be clear that I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and I would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference,” Barrett said.
Asked about George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police in May in an incident that triggered widespread protests, Barrett called the issue “very, very personal for my family” because among her seven children, two – adopted from Haiti – are Black. Barrett said she and one of her daughters, Vivian, cried together after seeing the video.
Barrett said racism persists in America but declined to give her view on whether it is systemic or how it should be addressed.
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.