Washington (AFP) -
Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's pick to fill a key vacancy on the Supreme Court bench, faced the Senate's scrutiny Monday as confirmation hearings kicked off for the lifetime appointment -- which Democrats appear largely powerless to block.
Dueling crowds of protesters rallied outside the Senate building brandishing signs for and against the conservative law professor's appointment -- with Capitol Police making a number of arrests.
Barrett herself arrived accompanied by her husband and seven children, all masked, for Monday's hearings, keeping her black facemask through the hours-long opening remarks from Senate panelists -- with questioning to begin only on Tuesday.
The 48-year-old was tapped late last month by the Republican president to succeed liberal justice and women's rights champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died of cancer on September 18 -- six weeks from the November 3 election.
The Senate, now controlled by Republicans, is constitutionally tasked with approving nominations to the country's highest court, where conservatives now occupy five of nine seats and a Barrett confirmation could cement the bench's rightward tilt for decades.
'This is going to be a long, contentious week,' acknowledged Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham. 'The bottom line here is that the Senate is doing its duty.'
While Republicans praised Barrett as an ideal, competent nominee, one Democrat summarized his party's hostility to her confirmation, calling her a 'judicial torpedo' fired at the health care law that protects millions of Americans.
And Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris -- speaking by videolink -- slammed as 'reckless' the decision to hold the hearing at all amid a pandemic, with two Republican panelists among a recent outbreak of Covid-19 cases linked to the White House.
Senator Mike Lee appeared in person and without a mask to deliver his remarks, having announced his diagnosis 10 days earlier.
The second Republican to have tested positive, Thom Tillis, appeared remotely.
- Faith and law -
Democrats and their presidential candidate Joe Biden are demanding that the nomination be left until after the election, but Trump wants to push ahead.
But despite their opposition, Democrats are largely powerless to block Barrett's confirmation, with Republicans holding 53 of the Senate's 100 seats.
Two Republican senators oppose any vote for Barrett before the election, but Republicans still have enough votes for confirmation.
Barrett, a practicing Catholic, is well regarded by conservative Christians, who share many of her values, including an opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
She once told a gathering of students that 'your legal career is but a means to an end, and... that end is building the kingdom of God.'
In recent days, Barrett's affiliation to a small group of Catholics called the People of Praise, in which she reportedly held the title of 'handmaid,' has drawn particular attention.
But the judge, known for her finely honed legal arguments, insists she can keep her faith separate from her legal judgment.
'Courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life,' Barrett said in a draft of her opening statement.
'The policy decisions and value judgments of government must be made by the political branches elected by and accountable to the People. The public should not expect courts to do so, and courts should not try.'
Her supporters, including Vice President Mike Pence, argue she is the victim of hostility on the left toward religion in general.
- 'Keep our eye on the ball' -
But Biden, himself a Catholic, aimed to tamp down such confrontation, telling reporters Monday 'I don't think there should be any questions about her faith.'
Democrats instead should 'keep our eye on the ball,' Biden said. 'This is about, in less than one month Americans are going to lose their health insurance.'
Democrats present Barrett as a direct threat to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the law that has helped more than 20 million Americans gain health insurance, with several voicing concern her appointment was being rammed through in time for the court to hear a challenge to the law on November 10.
'The big secretive influences behind this unseemly rush see this nominee as a judicial torpedo they are firing at the ACA,' charged Senate Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.
With Trump, who trails in the polls, warning of a 'rigged election,' Democrat Richard Blumenthal also demanded Barrett recuse herself from any potential Supreme Court case regarding the vote, or risk 'explosive, enduring harm to the court's legitimacy and to your own credibility.'