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Amy Coney Barrett Heads To Senate For Day 1 Of Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Senate has started Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett despite worries about coronavirus. A cluster of people who went to the White House nomination ceremony for Judge Barrett got COVID, including two senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is overseeing the hearings. NPR's Kelsey Snell is following this story. Good morning, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right. So these started - the hearings started about two hours ago. We've heard from the committee chair, Republican Lindsey Graham, and the ranking member, Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in the past two hours. How are they framing their decision to go ahead with this process despite the risk?

SNELL: Well, you know, Democrats are extremely frustrated with the situation. Utah Republican Mike Lee appeared in person 10 days after being diagnosed with COVID-19, but he was asymptomatic and says he is following CDC guidelines and has been cleared to appear at the hearing. You know, many members have chosen to attend this hearing remotely in order to protect themselves or only show up when they're asking questions. And Republicans have largely dismissed any concerns about having these hearings. Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham discussed Democrats - accused Democrats of trying to avoid doing their jobs and slow the hearing down. He was arguing essentially that virtual hearings have been sufficient for months and should be sufficient now. Barrett and her family are in attendance. They're wearing masks, and most members who have appeared are also wearing them, though Lee did remove his when he spoke.

It's been really interesting to see how they discuss it. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said the hearing was like a microcosm of the country. And he said the president has failed to keep Americans safe, and Graham is failing to do so for the committee. You know, it is a real reminder that this hearing is as much about the political moment with the White House and the control of the Senate in the balance as it is about this particular nomination.

KING: And then this afternoon, we'll hear from Judge Barrett. She's going to give a kind of opening statement. What will she say? Do we know?

SNELL: Yeah. We have - NPR obtained a copy of her opening statement, and she talks about the courts being in vital (ph) - a vital part of enforcing the law. But she said, quote, "Courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life." She talks about how policies should be made by elected political branches of the government, and the public should not expect the court to make value judgments the other branches are intended to make. In that statement, she also talks about how she thinks about her rulings. She talks about thinking about it from the other side as if her kids were in the party she was ruling against. And she says she asks herself if she'd understand that the decision was fairly reasoned and grounded in the law.

KING: Over the years, she has said she shares the judicial philosophy of former Justice Antonin Scalia, who she clerked for. Will that come up today?

SNELL: Yeah, and it absolutely has. It's been a really big focus for Republicans on the committee. They've talked about legal theory and her academic credentials. They have compared her to Scalia, who she says is her mentor. Many have discussed her large family and overall qualifications as a judge. It was interesting to hear Chairman Lindsey Graham at the start of this hearing make very clear that this hearing really isn't even about trying to determine if Barrett has the votes and can be confirmed. This is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: This is probably not about persuading each other. Unless something really dramatic happens, all Republicans will vote yes, and all Democrats will vote no.

SNELL: So he's essentially sending it out that there - this is an opportunity to talk about her background but not really about whether or not people are going to vote for her.

KING: Yeah, no. That's a pretty blunt statement. I missed that one as I was watching. So how are Democrats responding to that?

SNELL: You know, they're making it very clear that, for them, this is about health care and about the future of the Affordable Care Act. They've said for several days that this hearing is their chance to clarify for voters exactly what's at stake in their minds in this election and with this nomination. Here's how Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: In filling Judge Ginsburg's seat, the stakes are extraordinarily high for the American people, both in the short term and for decades to come. Most importantly, health care coverage for millions of Americans is at stake with this nomination.

SNELL: So as you can hear, the politics here are inescapable. The stakes are high for both sides, and it's being watched by voters across the country.

KING: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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