As questioning got underway, Judge Barrett described her judicial philosophy, calling herself a strict textualist and originalist in the tradition of her mentor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
“In English, that means I interpret the Constitution as a law,” said Judge Barrett. “The text is text, and I understand it to have the meaning that it had at the time people ratified it. It does not change over time, and it is not up to me to update it or infuse my own views into it.”
Asked by Senator Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and the Judiciary Committee chairman, if it would be accurate to call her a “female Scalia,” Judge Barrett said that he had been a mentor. But she added: “I want to be careful to say if I am confirmed, you would not be getting Justice Scalia. You would be getting Justice Barrett, and that is because not all originalists agree.”
The exchange came as Mr. Graham and Judge Barrett sought to push back on Democrats’ portrayal of the nominee as a right-wing activist chosen to undermine civil rights, the Affordable Care Act and environmental law. Republicans have instead worked to focus on her qualifications and emphasize her status as an accomplished working mother of seven.
Justices do not set an agenda, Judge Barrett said, they respond to the cases that come before them. The description of the process was accurate, but also largely irrelevant in today’s legal world, where interest groups seek out and advance cases to come to the Supreme Court for the express purpose of getting justices to rule on policies to match their political beliefs.
“Judges cannot just wake up one day and say, ‘I have an agenda — I like guns, I hate guns, I like abortion, I hate abortion,’ and walk in like a royal queen and impose their will on the world,” Judge Barrett said.
When Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, reminded Judge Barrett that Justice Scalia had famously written that the Roe v. Wade decision establishing abortion rights was wrongly decided and should be overturned, Judge Barrett refused to clarify her own views on the issue.
Citing the line other nominees have used, she said she could not comment on legal issues that might come back before the court, beyond simply discussing the role of precedent generally in the law.
Ms. Feinstein was not pleased. “On something that is a major cause with major effects on over half of the population of this country who are women, it is distressing not to get a straight answer,” she said.
Judge Barrett would not budge.
“I have no agenda to try and overrule Casey,” she said, referring to another abortion rights case. “I have an agenda to stick to the rule of law and decide cases as they come.”
Judge Barrett refused on Tuesday to say whether she would recuse herself, if confirmed, from considering an upcoming case in which Republican states are trying again to get the Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care Act.
Under questioning from Mr. Graham, the nominee, who has criticized a past Supreme Court decision that declined to strike down a key part of the health care law, said whether a justice should recuse herself is a “legal issue” and “not a question that I could answer in the abstract.”
She also cited a statute that says, among other things, that judges should recuse themselves “whenever their impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” However, Judge Barrett also acknowledged that whether that standard has been met is up to each individual justice to decide for herself.
Supreme Court justices do not like to recuse themselves, in part because, unlike at the district and appeals court levels, there is no one to replace them if they step aside. If a justice decides to stay on a case despite accusations of a conflict of interest, there is no appeal.
Asked about other issues — notably abortion rights — Judge Barrett spoke about the doctrine of “stare decisis,” which says the Supreme Court should be reluctant to revisit issues it has previously decided.
But she noted that the legal question at issue in the upcoming Affordable Care Act case — whether the entire law must be struck down because one part of it has been deemed flawed, or whether the flawed part is “severable” from the rest — was not addressed in the earlier case, meaning there was no precedent to respect.
When Ms. Feinstein later returned to the topic, Judge Barrett signaled that she did not think she had said or written anything that expressed a view on the current matter.
“Really, the issue in the case is this doctrine of severability and that’s not something that I have ever talked about with respect to the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “Honestly, I haven’t written anything about severability that I know of at all.”
Facing a difficult re-election battle, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, opened the second day of Supreme Court confirmation hearings with a prolonged political speech on health care, which he justified as a demonstration of “the difference between politics and judging.”
Mr. Graham framed his remarks as a rebuttal to Democrats on the panel, who on Monday narrowly focused their opening remarks on how Judge Barrett’s confirmation could affect Americans’ access to health care, a theme that helped them win the House majority in the 2018 midterm elections.
But his remarks also functioned as a televised stump speech from the dais of the Judiciary Committee for South Carolina voters considering whether to support his Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison.
“All of you over there who want to impose Obamacare on South Carolina? We do not want it,” he said. “We want something better. We want something different. You know what we want? South Carolina care.”
Mr. Graham practically boasted: “That’s got nothing to do with this hearing. It’s got everything to do with politics.”
The South Carolina Republican is still favored to win re-election in a state that almost certainly will back President. Trump, but he is fighting a flood of Democratic money. Mr. Harrison raised a stunning $57 million in the third quarter of 2020, the highest quarterly fund-raising total for any Senate candidate in United States history.
Mr. Graham gave a sardonic nod to Mr. Harrison’s campaign coffers later in the hearing as he questioned Judge Barrett on the Citizens United decision that removed virtually any restrictions on corporate money in politics.
“You and I are going to come closer and closer about regulating money, because I do not know what is going on out there,” Mr. Graham said to a Democratic senator on the panel. “There is a lot of money being raised in this campaign. I would like to know where the hell some of it is coming from, but that is not your problem.”
Democrats are expected to focus more on the implications of confirming Judge Barrett than on criticizing her directly.
In opening statements on Monday, Democrats denounced the hearing as an attempt by Republicans to rush through a nominee who would shift the ideological balance of the Supreme Court to the right, jeopardizing the health care law. Many came equipped with photographs and back stories of constituents who have depended on the law during the pandemic, questioning what future they would face if a conservative majority overturned the statute when it goes before the court the week after Election Day.
Democrats want to avoid attacking Judge Barrett’s character, which happened during the confirmation hearings for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018. They are also steering clear of talking about the nominee’s Catholic faith, which some Democrats made an issue during her confirmation hearing for an appeals court seat in 2017.
Republicans spent the first day of the proceeding charging that Democrats’ opposition to Judge Barrett reflected anti-religious bias, although no Democrat mentioned or alluded to her faith.
Her story touched on many of the points Republicans sought to emphasize throughout the day on Monday, including her popularity among students, her publications in prestigious law journals and her ability to balance her work with her family.
In questioning Judge Barrett over the coming days, Republicans are likely to continue building a profile of the nominee as an accomplished legal scholar inappropriately scrutinized by Democrats for her personal values.
In doing so, they are likely to invite Judge Barrett to speak about her role as a mentor and a teacher, and as a mother to a large family that includes two adopted children. The approach will allow Senate Republicans, whose majority is at risk, to appeal to women and independent voters whose backing their candidates need to win re-election.
While Republicans may look to flesh out her biography by asking about Judge Barrett’s judicial experience as a circuit court judge since 2017, they appear more likely to focus on her much longer professional history as an academic, rather than her judicial philosophy or interpretation of the law.
With Democrats all but conceding that Judge Barrett’s confirmation is inevitable, much of the questioning is likely to be colored by the broader political climate in which the confirmation process is taking place.
Democrats plan to use their time to ask Judge Barrett about her views on access to health care, a theme that helped them win the House majority in the 2018 midterm elections, and abortion rights, in an effort to emphasize the stakes of her confirmation for independent voters and women.
While Democrats may press Judge Barrett to speak about her conservative opinions, their questions are likely to be fruitless, as most past nominees have declined to answer questions about how they may vote in the future.
They are also expected to continue to argue that the hearing is diverting attention and resources from the current public health crisis, as lawmakers have failed to pass new legislation that could provide economic relief.
The pandemic’s impact will be felt inside the hearing room in more literal ways as well. Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, who tested positive less than two weeks ago, is expected to make his return to the hearing room to question Judge Barrett in person after he said he was cleared by his person doctor on Tuesday to resume in-person activities. Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, who had also tested positive, returned on Monday.