Oct. 12 (UPI) -- U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett said Monday she would be fair and impartial if confirmed and thanked her family and those who have prayed for her in remarks to the Senate's judiciary committee.
Barrett, who has served for three years on U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, praised Justice Anthony Scalia, for whom she clerked after graduating from law school, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whom she would replace on the high court.
Of Scalia, a conservative who died in 2016, Barrett said she admired how "he was devoted to his family, resolute in his beliefs and fearless of criticism."
Of Ginsberg, Barrett said, "I have been nominated to take Justice Ginsberg's seat, but no one can take her place. I will be forever grateful for the path she marked and the life she led."
Barrett, who would be the only Supreme Court justice with school-age children, spoke of her husband and gave a short introduction of all seven of her children and her multiple siblings.
Barrett appeared to address Democratic concerns that she would be a conservative activist on the high court by saying that on the 7th Circuit, she has striven "to reach the result required by the law, whatever my own preferences might be."
She also said courts are "not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life," adding that the elected legislative and executive branches should be accountable for public policy. "The public should not expect the court to do so, and the court should not try."
The University of Notre Dame Law School graduate pointed out she would be the only justice on the Supreme Court who did not graduate from Harvard or Yale university law schools.
"If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, I pledge to faithfully and impartially discharge my duties to the American people as an associate justice of the Supreme Court," she said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running for president, said Monday he feared Barrett could be the pivotal vote in an upcoming Supreme Court case to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which could remove insurance coverage for millions during a pandemic.
Biden, who like Barrett belongs to the Roman Catholic Church, said her religion should be off-limits during questioning by the judiciary committee.
"I don't think there should be any questions about her faith," he said.
Capitol police said 22 people were arrested while protesting outside the confirmation hearings Monday morning for "crowding, obstructing or incommoding" entrance to a building and unlawful conduct.
Demonstrators supporting and opposing Barrett's confirmation crowded the Capitol grounds, with some touting anti-abortion messages, others wearing judge costumes.
Democrats have been staunchly opposed to President Donald Trump filling the court vacancy so close to the election -- the same argument Republicans used four years ago to block President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland.
Sens. Diane Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Senate judiciary committee, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont said previous remarks by Barrett about the landmark healthcare law make it likely she will vote to strike it down in a case that will be heard soon after the Nov. 3 election.
"Healthcare coverage for millions of Americans is at stake in this nomination," Feinstein said.
A case before the court on Nov. 10 includes an 18-state coalition led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that seeks to overturn the ACA. It argues the law was rendered unconstitutional by Trump's 2017 tax overhaul, which removed the individual mandate -- a provision Republicans say was the only constitutional basis for the law.
"The president has promised to appoint justices who will vote to dismantle that law," Feinstein said. "The bottom line is this: There have been 70 attempts to repeal the ACA, but clearly the effort to dismantle the law continues."
Leahy, appearing remotely at Monday's hearing, said Barrett's confirmation would be "catastrophic" for about 20 million Americans who rely on the ACA to pay for medical care and prescription drugs.
Leahy held a photo of a wheelchair-bound Vermont nurse who he said worries about losing her coverage.
"Look at this person.. they're scared, Judge Barrett," he said. "They're scared that your confirmation would rip from them the very healthcare protections that millions of Americans have fought to maintain."
Their messages were echoed by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the Democratic vice presidential nominee, who criticized the decision by committee Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to hold the hearing amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Senate Republicans, Harris said, have yet to act on a much-needed COVID-19 relief bill but have "made it crystal clear that rushing through a Supreme Court nomination is more important than helping and supporting the American people who are suffering from a deadly pandemic and a devastating economic crisis."
Defense of hearings
Graham opened the hearing by defending the decision to move forward, saying the Senate is "is doing its duty constitutionally" -- even though he said multiple times after Garland was blocked that Republicans would never nominate a justice in an election year.
GOP committee members praised Barrett as well-qualified and warned against applying a "religious test" to the candidate -- a reference to her devout Catholic faith, which opponents say could lead to bias in consideration of cases challenging to Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion.
"This is an attempt to broach a new frontier... a religious test for office," said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., adding that "65 million Americans are Catholics and many many millions more are Christians of other persuasions.
"Are they to be told that they are not welcome in the public sphere unless the members of this committee sign off on their religious beliefs? I for one, do not want to live in such an America."
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said Democrats' concerns about abortion are a "tired, worn-out argument" that is made "every time a Republican president nominates a candidate for the bench."
He defended Barrett's record and declared she would not "legislate from the bench."
The vacant seat on the Supreme Court bench creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity, according to conservatives, to change the bench makeup from its split of five conservative justices and four liberal ones to a more conservative 6-3 majority.
Barrett needs just a simple majority vote in the Senate for confirmation. Previously, Supreme Court nominees required a minimum of 60 votes to be confirmed, but Senate Republicans changed the rule in 2017 to pass Trump's first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, in the face of universal Democratic opposition.
Republicans have 53 votes in the Senate to Democrats' 47, and Vice President Mike Pence could break a tie. Moderate Republican senators hold crucial votes, including Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah.
The judiciary committee hearing will continue through Thursday and a vote by the full Senate could come as soon as next week, though it's expected Democrats will ask for a holdover to delay the vote about a week.
While some appeared before Monday's hearing remotely, votes by the committee and the full Senate would require all senators' physical presence.
Barrett, 48, who grew up in Metairie, La., was nominated to the 7th Circuit in 2017 after 15 years of teaching law at Notre Dame. She lives with her family in South Bend, Ind.
Barrett is a member of People of Praise, a small Christian group that requires a loyalty oath to a personal adviser. She is also a member of the conservative Federalist Society.