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Politics and the pandemic permeate Day 1 of Amy Coney Barrett hearings

Senate confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett opened Monday under highly unusual circumstances, only weeks before Election Day and during a pandemic. The political stakes for Barrett’s nomination are high, as the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider the Affordable Care Act in November. Lisa Desjardins and John Yang join Judy Woodruff to discuss the proceedings and the policy implications.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, John, as well as our Lisa Desjardins, joins me now.

    So, Lisa, to you first.

    This was clearly not your usual Supreme Court hearing. We are in the middle of a pandemic. Tell us how that affected what happened today.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, being in the room, it was surreal, Judy.

    This is a cavernous place. There were a fraction of the usual number of people in it. Now, most people there were masked. The Capitol physician had actually measured the distance between each piece of furniture. And that led to, I think, something John reported about. There was less charge in the air, more of a sense of control, I think it was, less of the usual tension, I think, because of this sort of plotted-out logistics.

    Now, most people wore masks, as I said, not Chairman Lindsey Graham. Also of note was that Senator Mike Lee of Utah was physically present in the room at all 10 days after being diagnosed with the coronavirus. He says a physician has cleared him.

    But this question of masks really overrides everything at the Capitol. The Capitol Hill press corps has asked lawmakers to wear masks when they interview with us.

    And I want to play some tape of what happened when White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was asked to do that.

  • Mark Meadows:

    Let me do this. Let me pull this away.

  • Question:

    Yes. Pull away.

  • Mark Meadows:

    And then, that way, I can take this off to talk.

  • Question:


  • Mark Meadows:

    Well, I'm more than 10 feet away. I'm not — well, I'm not going to talk through a mask. I will be glad to answer your questions.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There you see the tricky politics here. Meadows decided not to speak, rather than speak with a mask.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Really interesting, Lisa.

    And we saw, in John's report, there were activists outside, supporters of Judge Barrett, perhaps others. Tell us about who was there. What were they saying?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There were two different scenes, as you saw, on the steps of the Supreme Court, more tense, confrontational.

    But where I was, at the Senate building, the crowd outside were supporters of Amy Coney Barrett. Let's look at some photos of them. These people were joyous. And talking to them, these were a lot of women. Some of them said they were Republicans, many of them conservatives, all of them conservatives, many of them moms.

    And they said they saw Amy Coney Barrett as the kind of example they have hoped for, and, in fact, a reflection of themselves, I think, in the way that when Justice Sotomayor took to the bench, a lot of Hispanic people, and especially young girls, saw her as inspiring.

    Judy, these families, these moms, working moms, see, in Amy Coney Barrett, a woman of faith and a successful mom, someone that reflects them on the court in a way they haven't seen before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, John, back to you.

    You did cite in your report how so many of the Democrats referred to they're concerned about what Judge Barrett would do if she's on the court about an upcoming court case about the Affordable Care Act.

    What is it in her — what she has said and what she's written before that gives them concern?

  • John Yang:

    Well, one explicit thing, Judy, after Chief Justice John Roberts in 2012 interpreted the penalty in the individual mandate that people buy — have to buy insurance as a tax, she wrote to then — law school Professor Barrett wrote in a law school review, an essay: "Chief Justice John Roberts pushed the Affordable Care Act beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute."

    In other words, he had a goal in mind and found a reason to do it. That's exactly the opposite of what textualists say you should do when you interpret laws.

    And, also, this argument that's going to be presented at the court on November 10 is a particularly textualist argument. They say it doesn't matter what Congress said it intended to do when it took away that tax — or, actually, what they did is they set the tax at zero. They say the mandate remains, because the word shall remains in the law, and that is forcing Americans, they say, to enter into a commercial contract to buy health insurance, and they say that's unconstitutional.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We are certainly going to hear a lot more about that tomorrow.

    John Yang, Lisa Desjardins, thank you both.

    And we hope you will join us tomorrow morning for the second day of live coverage of these hearings in the confirmation of Judge Barrett to the Supreme Court. That starts at 9:00 a.m. Eastern, 7:00 Central — or, rather, 8:00 Central on PBS, and online at our Web site, on YouTube and our other social platforms.

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