As hearings begin, a 'power grab without principle' comes into view

A fundamental question hangs overhead: is there a coherent defense for launching a Supreme Court confirmation process right now?
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Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, meets with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., at the Capitol on Sept. 30, 2020.Demetrius Freeman / Pool via AP

The Senate Judiciary Committee will, as promised, begin consideration today of Judge Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination, and under normal circumstances, the political world would be pondering a variety of routine questions. What are the nominee's qualifications? What do we know about her ideology? And judicial temperament?

With Barrett, in particular, there are a series of more specific questions. How eager is the young conservative to tear down the Affordable Care Act? What about the jurist's record of fierce opposition to reproductive rights? How seriously should senators consider her recent disclosure failures?

But as critically important as those questions are, as this week's proceedings get underway, a more fundamental question hangs overhead: is there a coherent defense for launching this process right now? A recent Washington Post editorial rings true:

Mr. Trump is asking Senate Republicans to perpetrate a damaging injustice by ramming through a nominee on the eve of a presidential election. This move threatens to sully the court and aggravate suspicions over the coming election. Senate Republicans should be disgusted at playing the role they are being asked to play. But so far they seem shameless in their hypocrisy and wanton in their willingness to poison the workings of our democracy.

The editorial added that the GOP effort to ram through Barrett's nomination, even as millions of ballots are being cast, is "a power grab without principle."

Much of the American mainstream agrees. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll found that a 52% majority of the country believes the Senate "should delay filling the court's current vacancy," leaving the matter to the winner of next month's presidential election. This is roughly in line with other recent polling on the matter.

What's more, USA Today reported last week on a focus group with Republican women in swing states, each of whom voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and "none of them favored the idea of moving forward with a confirmation process before the election, and several said they were more likely to support Biden as a result."

What's more, there aren't just issues of basic fairness to consider; there are also pandemic-era practical considerations.

There are 12 Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and two of them -- Utah's Mike Lee and North Carolina's Thom Tillis -- recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Common sense suggested the diagnoses should delay the proceedings, but Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) announced he would push ahead anyway.

Indeed, Graham, who was recently with Lee -- indoors, without a mask -- is refusing to even be tested for the virus. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), another Judiciary Committee member, has also said he will not take a test to determine whether he's contracted the virus.

There's no great mystery here: if Graham and/or Grassley were to get tested, they might receive discouraging news, at which point they'd have to go into quarantine, putting Barrett's confirmation at risk. It's hardly a stretch to think this explains their reluctance to get tested.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a Judiciary Committee member facing a tough re-election fight, conceded over the weekend that it "would be smart" for senators on the panel to get tested before this week's proceedings begin. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) added over the weekend, in reference to Ernst's comments, "She's right, but will Senator Ernst do anything if Senators Graham and Grassley refuse? Or is this just an empty statement?"

These need not be rhetorical questions.

Update: Mike Lee, 10 days after testing positive for the coronavirus, appeared in person at today's hearing and spoke without a mask on. The Utah senator also released a doctor's note claiming it's all right for him to do this.

Oddly enough, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) appeared virtually at today's hearing because he's quarantining -- as a result of his interactions with Mike Lee.