Sen. Leahy calls for Supreme Court hearings to be delayed amid COVID-19 spread

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Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will attend next week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings remotely, but he’s also calling on GOP leaders to delay them until strict COVID-19 procedures are implemented.

Hearings for President Trump’s nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, are scheduled to begin on Monday in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Two of its members, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) have tested positive for COVID-19, and others have refused to be tested.

“In the wake of news that Senators Lee and Tillis tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the White House event announcing Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Judiciary Committee Democrats asked that you postpone her confirmation hearings to ensure that we don’t risk the health and safety of fellow Senators, Senate staff, other Senate employees, as well as Judge Barrett and her family,” Leahy wrote in a letter to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also signed the letter.

Vermont Law School professor Jared Carter said positive tests in the White House and on Capitol Hill have thrown additional uncertainty over what was already a complicated nomination process, despite President Trump’s claim that it will be “fast and easy.”

“I think it’s pretty clear that this is an unmitigated disaster in Washington,” Carter said. “Our Government is already in a tenuous position with the President, members of his close inner circle, and government officials having been infected, can you imagine what would happen if a large number of the Senate Judiciary Committee or U.S. Senate were unable to carry out their duties?”

While members of the Senate Judiciary Committee can attend hearings remotely, committee rules require a majority of its members to be physically present in order to vote on sending the nomination to the full Senate.

At the end of the day, however, Sen. Leahy and other Senate Democrats don’t appear to have a lot of leverage over when the vote happens, or what health and safety precautions will be in place.

“The health and well-being of the Senate has got to come first,” Carter said. “Do the Republicans have the power to move forward if they want? Sure. But I think they do that at their own peril, particularly in light of the demographic that the Senate is made up of.”

Aside from the health concerns associated with contracting COVID-19, Carter said additional positive tests could have sweeping political consequences.

Senate Republicans need 51 votes to confirm Barrett, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) have both indicated they don’t support filling the vacancy before an election.

“I think there could be all sorts of different snags,” Carter said. “You hear about talk that Democrats could boycott, and if there’s a couple Senators that are out ill on the Republican side, it’s a razor-thin margin, even with the 51 vote requirement, and I think that means that anything that starts to trip up the process can very quickly snowball.”

In the letter penned by Sen. Leahy, Sen. Harris and Sen. Booker, they listed the following demands in order for hearings to go on as scheduled:

  • Every Senator and staffer who plans to attend the hearings must test negative for COVID-19 on two prior consecutive days.
  • Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 or who has come in close contact with someone who has tested positive must quarantine for the appropriate, CDC-recommended period.
  • Mandatory, daily COVID-19 testing for anyone who attends or comes in contact with someone who attends the hearings.
  • Testing must be conducted by an independent body, like the Attending Physician of the U.S. Congress, and the results of tests for Senators should be released publicly.

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