The US Senate has confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court, delivering Donald Trump a huge but partisan victory just eight days before the election and locking in rightwing domination of the nation’s highest court for years to come.
The vote was a formality, with senators divided almost entirely along party lines, voting 52 to 48 with just one Republican breaking ranks. But it still marked a seismic moment for Trump, for the supreme court and for American democracy.
For the president, it meant his legacy on judicial appointees is secure whatever the outcome of next week’s election. Trump will have placed three conservative justices on the court, albeit in highly contentious circumstances.
For the supreme court, it sealed an unassailable six to three balance between conservatives and liberal justices. The oldest of those conservatives, Clarence Thomas, is 72 and still has potentially many years to serve within his lifetime appointment.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, underlined the political importance of the moment when he said on Sunday: “A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election. They won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”
For US democracy, the confirmation gives the conservative justices the upper hand on such hot-button issues as abortion, same-sex marriage and the climate crisis – areas where public opinion is firmly in favor of progressive change.
Following the vote, a swearing-in ceremony was held at the White House. Trump introduced Barrett saying that her addition to the court carried forward “the cause of freedom”. In her speech, Barrett said she would conduct her new job “independently of both branches [of government] and of my own preferences”.
She thanked the senate for “the confidence you have placed in me”, ignoring the inconvenient truth that half the political composition of the chamber had turned its back on her.
The sole rebel from party ranks was the Republican senator Susan Collins who voted against Barrett’s confirmation. Earlier in the day Collins said she had based her decision not on the judge’s qualifications but on a sense of fairness, though Collins’s tough re-election fight in Maine no doubt focused her attention.
The confirmation will leave a residue of bitter partisan rancor given the Republican rush to push Barrett through days before the election – the closest confirmation to a presidential election in US history – having refused four years ago to countenance Barack Obama’s pick for the supreme court on grounds that the people should decide.
Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate cast Barrett’s confirmation as one of the “darkest days in the 231-year history” of the Senate in his party’s closing arguments. Addressing his Republican peers, he said: “You may get Amy Coney Barrett on to the supreme court but you will never, never get your credibility back.”
Joe Biden also protested the confirmation. During a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, he tweeted: “More than 60 million Americans have already voted. They deserve to have their voices heard on who replaced justice Ginsburg.”
McConnell was dismissive of Democratic laments, deriding them as a 50-year-old tactic. “What they want is activist judges, a small panel of lawyers with elite education to reason backwards from outcomes and enlighten all the rest of us,” he said shortly before the Senate vote was called.
Barrett, a favorite of Christian conservatives, signed a 2006 newspaper ad that called for the overturning of Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion, and called its legacy “barbaric”. She did not disclose the ad to the Senate.
Trump has also said he expects the court to decide the outcome of a disputed election, as it did in 2000, and wants Barrett on the bench for any election-related cases. There are major voting rights disputes already lodged with lower courts in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that could come before Barrett and her new colleagues on the court within days of next week’s ballot.
By the end of this month Barrett could also be asked to rule on the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. The healthcare protections of millions of Americans, including those with pre-existing conditions, hang in the balance.
As soon as Monday’s confirmation vote was completed, some 150 guests began to assemble on the South Lawn of the White House to celebrate Barrett’s arrival at the pinnacle of US justice. She was sworn in at an outdoor ceremony with the constitutional oath given by Justice Thomas, a stalwart of the court’s conservative wing which she now joins.
The decision to go ahead with the ceremony was in itself contentious. Last month Barrett’s nomination was marked at a similar event in the White House Rose Garden, and promptly turned into a “superspreader” incident linked to an outbreak of infection among officials including the president.
Despite that chilling prequel, Barrett was seen talking to Thomas within a couple of feet of each other, both without masks. In the front row of the audience, first lady Melania Trump and the new justice’s husband Jesse Barrett also went ostentatiously unmasked.
Adding to the controversy around Monday night’s proceedings, the swearing in came just days after five people in the inner circle of the vice-president, Mike Pence, also tested positive. Pence has continued to campaign in the election despite being exposed to the virus, having been declared exempt from the need to quarantine by dint of being an “essential worker”.