WASHINGTON: The US Senate confirmed conservative jurist Amy Coney Barrett as the Supreme Court's newest justice on Monday (Oct 26), delivering a landmark and controversial win for President Donald Trump just eight days before the election.
The deeply divided chamber voted 52 to 48, largely along party lines in the Republican-controlled Senate, making Barrett the third Trump nominee to reach the high court and cementing a six-to-three conservative majority. One Republican, Susan Collins, voted against the confirmation.
Republican lawmakers broke into applause as the tally was read out, and the White House is also expected to celebrate the confirmation in the final run-up to the Nov 3 election, in which more than 60 million Americans have already voted.
Barrett's addition cements one of the most right-leaning Supreme Court rosters in generations. The shifting of the Supreme Court and the broader federal judiciary to the right has been a signature achievement of Trump's presidency, aided by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The ceremony planned at the White House comes a month after a similar event was linked to a COVID-19 outbreak that preceded Trump's own infection. Barrett will succeed liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last month.
At the ceremony, conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas will administer one of the two oaths of office that justices have to take, according to a White House official.
Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the separate judicial oath at the court on Tuesday, the court said in a statement.
Trump, who has been touting the appointment at campaign rallies to the cheers of his supporters, pressed the Senate to confirm Barrett, 48, to the lifetime post before the Nov 3 election in which he trails Democrat Joe Biden in national opinion polls. No Supreme Court justice had ever been confirmed so close to a presidential election.
Trump has said he expects the court to decide the outcome of the election between him and Democrat Joe Biden and wants Barrett to participate on any election-related cases that go before the justices.
Just before the Senate vote, the court on a 5-3 vote with the conservative justices in the majority, issued an order curbing the deadline for mail-in ballots to be received in the electoral battleground of Wisconsin.
Barrett's confirmation shifts the Supreme Court further to the right, which could pave the way to conservative rulings curbing abortion rights, expanding gun rights and limiting voting rights, among other things.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the Republican majority was "lighting its credibility on fire" by proceeding with the vote so close to the election after blocking Democratic President Barack Obama's election-year nominee in 2016.
"The truth is this nomination is part of a decades-long effort to tilt the judiciary to the far right," he added.
McConnell defended Barrett's nomination.
"We don't have any doubt, do we, that if the shoe was on the other foot, they'd be confirming," McConnell said. "You can't win them all, and elections have consequences."
Barrett, a federal appeals court judge, is Trump's third selection for the court, enabling him to remake it in dramatic fashion as part of his success in moving the broader federal judiciary to the right since taking office in 2017.
Barrett is expected to participate in arguments on Nov 10 in a case in which Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act. The 2010 healthcare law, also known as Obamacare, has helped millions of Americans obtain medical insurance and barred private insurers from denying medical coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
Barrett has criticised previous rulings upholding Obamacare but said during her confirmation hearing she had no agenda to invalidate the measure.
During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago, Barrett, a favourite of Christian conservatives, irked Democrats by sidestepping questions on abortion, presidential powers, climate change, voting rights, Obamacare and other issues.
The Sep 26 Rose Garden ceremony at which Trump named Barrett as his nominee preceded a wave of COVID-19 cases among top Republicans including Trump and first lady Melania Trump. The president spent three nights hospitalized receiving COVID-19 treatment.
The event, part of which occurred in the White House Rose Garden, was crowded with guests, many of whom did not wear masks.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters that Monday's event likely would be held outdoors.
"Tonight, we'll be doing the best we can to encourage as much social distancing as possible," Meadows said.
Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican and Trump ally, said he was not overly concerned about attending the White House event.
"I would anticipate that everybody will practice good hygiene, social distancing, whatever is appropriate," Cramer told reporters.
Several other Republican senators said they were not sure they would attend, and McConnell did not reply when asked by a reporter. Earlier this month, McConnell said he had not been at the White House since August because of its handling of COVID-19 precautions.