Trump's Supreme Court pick Barrett vows 'open mind' on Obamacare case

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Wednesday sought to allay fears raised by Democrats at her Senate confirmation hearing that she would be an automatic vote to strike down the Obamacare healthcare law, promising an “open mind” in approaching the case.

On the third day of her four-day hearing, she sidestepped a question on whether a president can issue a pardon to himself, while the Judiciary Committee’s Republican chairman lauded her as “unashamedly pro-life” even as Democrats worry she could vote to overturn the 1973 ruling legalizing abortion nationwide.

Barrett, a conservative federal appellate judge, is the Republican president’s third selection for a lifetime job on the top U.S. judicial body. Trump has asked the Senate, controlled by his fellow Republicans, to confirm her before the Nov. 3 U.S. election.

Barrett could be on the high court for Nov. 10 arguments in a challenge by Trump and Republican-led states to the 2010 law, formally called the Affordable Care Act (ACA), that has helped millions of Americans obtain medical coverage and includes protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

In response to Democratic suggestions that she would vote to strike down the entire law down if one part is found to be unlawful, Barrett said that if a statute can be saved, it is a judge’s duty to do so.

Barrett indicated she favors of a broad reading of the “severability doctrine” in which courts assume that when one provision of a law is unlawful, Congress would want the rest of the statute to remain in place. The Supreme Court has taken such an approach in recent years.

“I think insofar as it tries to effectuate what Congress would have wanted, it’s the court and Congress working hand in hand,” Barrett said of the doctrine.

When judges address the legal question raised in the Obamacare case, the “presumption” is that Congress did not intend the whole statute to fall, Barrett added.

“If I were on the court, and if a case involving the ACA came before me, I would approach it with an open mind,” Barrett told Republican Senator John Cornyn.

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Democrats have said Barrett’s confirmation would threaten healthcare for millions of Americans. They also have said the winner of the presidential election should get to fill the court’s vacancy left by the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Barrett has declined to say whether she would recuse herself from the Obamacare case. Barrett said the case centers on a different legal issue than two previous Supreme Court rulings that upheld Obamacare that she has criticized.

PRESIDENTIAL POWERS

Pressed by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy on queries regarding Trump and presidential powers, Barrett said no one is above the law but sidestepped a question about whether a president can issue a pardon for himself.

Trump faces a criminal investigation about the conduct of himself and his businesses by a prosecutor in New York City who is seeking his financial records and tax returns. Trump also has issued executive clemency to political allies and friends.

Asked by Leahy whether a president can ignore a Supreme Court order, Barrett noted that the high court does not have enforcement power itself and relies on the other branches of government.

Barrett has sidestepped questions on contentious social issues including abortion, which as a devout Catholic, she personally opposes.

“This is history being made folks,” Senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the panel, said. “This is the first time in American history that we’ve nominated a woman who is unashamedly pro-life and embraces her faith without apology, and she’s going to the court. A seat at the table is waiting for you.”

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Barrett, 48, would be the fifth woman to serve on the court and the second Republican appointee.

Under questioning by Graham, Barrett reiterated her comments from Tuesday that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to abortion was not a “super-precedent” that could never potentially be overturned.

Barrett, a favorite of religious conservatives, told the committee on Tuesday she could set aside her religious beliefs in making judicial decisions.

Although the Supreme Court has for decades opposed having television coverage of its proceedings, Barrett said she had a “open mind” on the issue.

Barrett would tilt the court even further to the right, giving conservative justices a 6-3 majority. Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority, making Barrett’s confirmation a virtual certainty. Trump has said he expects the Supreme Court to decide the election’s outcome as he faces Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

The four-day hearing is scheduled to end on Thursday with testimony from outside witnesses, with Republicans already preparing for a committee vote next week and a final vote on the Senate floor before the end of the month. Trump nominated Barrett to a lifetime post on the court on Sept. 26.

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