President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, is appearing before senators in what has been billed as a “contentious week” of confirmation hearings.
The 48-year-old conservative jurist has vowed to judge legal cases impartially.
But her nomination so close to the 3 November presidential election has sparked a political row between the Republicans and rival Democrats.
The panel’s top Republican began by vowing to confirm the “great woman”.
But one Democratic senator on the committee described the process as “shameful”.
Judge Barrett’s approval would cement a 6-3 conservative majority on the nine-member top court, shifting its ideological balance for potentially decades to come.
President Trump picked Judge Barrett to replace liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last month aged 87.
The Republicans – who currently hold a slim majority in the US Senate, the body that confirms Supreme Court judges – are trying to complete the process before Mr Trump takes on Democratic rival Joe Biden in the election.
Who is Amy Coney Barrett?
- favoured by social conservatives due to record on issues like abortion and gay marriage
- a devout Catholic but says her faith does not influence her legal opinion
- is an originalist, which means interpreting US Constitution as authors intended, not moving with the times
- lives in Indiana, has seven children including two adopted from Haiti
Read more: Who is Trump’s Supreme Court pick?
The court’s nine justices serve lifetime appointments, and their rulings can shape public policy on everything from gun and voting rights to abortion and campaign finance.
What were the opening exchanges?
Committee chairman Lindsey Graham described Ms Barrett as being “in a category of excellence, something the country should be proud of”.
Top Democrat Dianne Feinstein defended healthcare reforms passed under President Barack Obama, saying that Ms Barrett’s appointment could threaten health access for millions.
“Simply put, I do not think we should be moving forward on this nomination,” she said, calling for the hearings to be delayed until after the election.
Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy said Republicans announced plans to fill Ginsberg’s seat “just one hour after the announcement of her death”.
“From that moment this process has been nothing but shameful. Worse, it will almost certainly lead to disastrous consequences for Americans.”
Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley predicted Democrats would “rustle up baseless claims and scare tactics” to smear the nominee and “outright disparage her religious beliefs”.
Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse called her nomination “a judicial torpedo” aimed at removing protections for sick Americans in the midst of a pandemic.
What will Judge Barrett say in her speech?
In what is effectively an interview for the job, the confirmation hearing will give Judge Barrett a chance to explain her legal philosophy and qualifications for the lifetime post.
In prepared remarks released ahead of Monday’s meeting, she thanks President Trump for “entrusting me with this profound responsibility”, which she calls the “honour of a lifetime”.
Judge Barrett will speak of the importance of her family and how her parents prepared her for a “life of service, principle, faith, and love”.
She will pay tribute to judges she has worked with, including former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Justice Scalia’s reasoning “shaped me”, Judge Barrett will say.
“His judicial philosophy was straightforward: A judge must apply the law as written, not as the judge wishes it were.”
Judge Barrett will say it is up to elected politicians to make “policy decisions and value judgments”, not Supreme Court justices.
“In every case, I have carefully considered the arguments presented by the parties, discussed the issues with my colleagues on the court, and done my utmost to reach the result required by the law, whatever my own preferences might be,” she will say.
Republicans confident amid political brawl
Supreme Court confirmation hearings are always high political drama. With a presidential election just three weeks away and the coronavirus pandemic still upending American life, however, the current environment in the US Senate Judiciary Committee is particularly volatile.
During opening remarks, Democrats demonstrated that they want Amy Coney Barrett’s hearings to be about the Republican rush to seat a new justice before the elections and the possibility that she could be a deciding vote to strike down the increasingly popular healthcare reforms passed under Democratic President Barack Obama.
To drive this point home, aides placed photos of Americans who have benefited from “Obamacare” on easels around the room as the Democratic senators began speaking.
Democrats are avoiding the divisive topic of abortion, which motivates political adversaries as much as it rallies allies, for what they feel is more favourable political ground.
Republicans, for their part, want these confirmation hearings to be business as usual. They know it will be a partisan brawl, but they’ve already won two Supreme Court confirmation fights during Donald Trump’s presidency.
The circumstances may be unusual, but if they stick together – and focus on Judge Barrett’s professional and personal qualifications – they feel confident they can prevail.
Read more: Anthony’s full analysis
What about coronavirus concerns?
The hearing room has been prepared in consultation with health officials to ensure that social-distancing rules will be met.
Two Republican senators on the committee, Mike Lee and Thom Tillis, have recently tested positive. Mr Lee attended Monday’s Senate hearing in person, but Mr Tillis said he would attend the first day remotely.
Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee who is known as one of the toughest questioners in the chamber, is participating remotely from her Senate office.
Judge Barrett and her attending family members wore masks as the senators took turns reading their opening statements.
What’s the confirmation process?
After the hearing ends, any committee member can require an additional week before the formal vote. It is not clear if the members will be able to vote remotely.
After that the Senate – the upper chamber of the US Congress – will vote to confirm or reject Judge Barrett’s nomination.
Republicans already appear to have the 51 votes needed to get Judge Barrett confirmed.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to hold a confirmation vote before the presidential election.
Barring a surprise, Democrats seem to have few procedural options to prevent her gliding through the Senate to the Supreme Court bench.
Why is Judge Barrett’s nomination so controversial?
Since Ginsburg’s death from cancer on 18 September, Republican senators have been accused of hypocrisy for pressing ahead with a Supreme Court nomination during an election year.
In 2016, Mr McConnell refused to hold hearings for Democratic President Barack Obama’s nominee for the court, Merrick Garland.
The nomination, which came 237 days before the election, was successfully blocked because Republicans held the Senate and argued the decision should be made outside of an election year.
This time around, Mr McConnell has lauded Judge Barrett’s nomination.
Democrats say the Republicans should stand by their earlier position and let voters decide. However, Republicans counter that the Democrats have also changed their stance since 2016.
Mr Biden has called Mr Trump’s efforts to appoint a justice an “abuse of power”.
He has so far refused to comment on whether the Democrats would attempt to add seats to the Supreme Court – dubbed “court packing” – if he won the presidential election.