President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett said on Tuesday at her US Senate confirmation hearing that her religious views would not affect her decisions on the bench and declined to say whether she believes landmark rulings legalising abortion and gay marriage nationwide were properly decided.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing also presented Barrett with a chance to respond to Democratic lawmakers who have been unified in opposing her on what they say would be her potential role in undermining the Obamacare healthcare law and its protection for patients with pre-existing conditions.
Trump has asked the Senate to confirm Barrett, a conservative federal appeals court judge, before the November 3 election in which he is seeking a second term in office.
Barrett, facing questioning by senators for the first time, declined to say if she would step aside from any election-related cases that could reach the court. She said she would follow standard recusal rules that give individual justices the final say. Barrett said no one at the White House sought a commitment from her on how she would rule.
"It would be a gross violation of judicial independence for me to make any such commitment or for me to be asked about that case," Barrett told the committee.
Barrett also declined to say whether she would consider stepping aside from an upcoming Obamacare case, as Democrats have requested. "That's not a question I can answer in the abstract," Barrett said.
Barrett noted that the new case the court is hearing on November 10 is on a different legal issue as two previous Supreme Court rulings that upheld Obamacare, which she had criticised. Barrett declined to say how she would approach the new case in which Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate the 2010 law formally called the Affordable Care Act. Barrett also said the White House did not seek her assurance that she would vote to strike down the law.
"Absolutely not. I was never asked - and if I had, that would have been a short conversation," Barrett said.
The Affordable Care Act is Democratic former President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy achievement and has enabled millions of Americans to obtain medical coverage.
Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority, making Barrett's confirmation a virtual certainty. If confirmed, Barrett, 48, would give conservatives a 6-3 Supreme Court majority. She is Trump's third Supreme Court appointment.
Like other Supreme Court nominees, Barrett opted to sidestep some questions on matters that could come before the court.
In responding to questions about abortion, which was legalised nationwide by the Supreme Court in a 1973 ruling called Roe v. Wade, Barrett said she would, as in other cases, consider the various factors usually applied when justices weigh whether to overturn a precedent.
"I promise to do that for any issue that comes up, abortion or anything else. I'll follow the law," Barrett said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel's top Democrat, asked Barrett whether she believed Roe v. Wade, which recognised a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, was properly decided. She declined to answer.
Feinstein told Barrett it was "disturbing" that she would not give an answer.
Religious conservatives are hoping the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade.
Republican committee chairman Lindsey Graham, asked Barrett, a devout Catholic and a favorite of religious conservatives, whether she could set aside her religious beliefs in making decisions as a justice.
"I can," Barrett said.
During her 2017 confirmation hearing after Trump nominated her to her current post on the Chicago-based 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals, Feinstein told Barrett that "the dogma lives loudly in you" - a comment that some Republicans said represented anti-religious bigotry.
Barrett called the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom she served as a clerk two decades ago, as her mentor, but said she would not always rule the same way as him.
"You would not be getting Justice Scalia, you would be getting Justice Barrett," she said.
Questioned by Feinstein, Barrett would not comment on whether she agreed with Scalia that the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalising gay marriage nationwide was wrongly decided.
"I have no agenda and I do want to be clear that I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and I would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference," Barrett said.
Two conservative justices, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito, mounted a fresh attack on October 5 on the gay marriage ruling, known as Obergefell v. Hodges, saying it continues to have "ruinous consequences" for religious liberty. Like Scalia, Thomas and Alito dissented in the Obergefell ruling.
Barrett declined to answer when Feinstein asked her whether the president can unilaterally delay a general election, which is fixed by law as the first Tuesday of November, under any circumstances.
"If I give off the cuff answers then I would be basically a legal pundit. And I don't think we want judges to be legal pundits. We want judges to approach cases thoughtfully and with an open mind," Barrett said.
Barrett was nominated to a lifetime post on the court on September 26 by Trump to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The four-day confirmation hearing is a key step before a full Senate vote by the end of October on Barrett's confirmation.