At Supreme Court Hearing, Kamala Harris Summons Her Prosecutorial Instincts

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Kamala Harris’ prosecutorial muscle memory is strong.

As the junior Senator from California and Democrats’ nominee for Vice President, Harris always stood to be a dominant figure in the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. She has proved her mettle during previous hearings, most notably for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. But this week, during her opening statement and roughly one-hour of questioning Barrett spread over two days, Harris drew directly on her former job as prosecutor. She never said it, but it didn’t strain the imagination to picture her silent affirmation before her video camera went live, a line she uttered in courtrooms for almost two decades: “Kamala Harris, for the people.”

Harris walked a careful line during her time to highlight the norm-breaking act of confirming such a critical post so close to an election, while also not sliding into the sexist territory some of her colleagues teetered near or alienating female voters who are backing Harris and her running mate. The disciplined prosecutor had her questions carefully organized, and Barrett immediately appeared to recognize the traps Harris was setting. While they clearly do not share a judicial philosophy, it seemed as though they considered each other formidable.

Biden picked Harris in no small part for her prosecutorial pluck, which was on clear display last week for the one debate between the vice presidential nominees. Now, sidelined from campaign travel due to the hearing and at least one COVID-19 case on her staff, Harris has used her allotted time to make as big of a mark as she can from a bland conference room in her office in the Hart Senate Office Building. (The lighting in Harris’ own office isn’t suited for Zooms, an aide tells me.) Harris has done her best to make these appearances work to the campaign’s advantage, trading some of her firepower from Kavanaugh for a milder tone now that she’s on the ticket. After all, unlike Kavanaugh’s nomination, Barrett’s is not in doubt.

From her opening statement on Monday, it was clear that Harris was having none of Republicans’ efforts to rush Barrett’s confirmation through. She joined her Democratic colleagues in highlighting Barrett’s potential to undercut or scrap the Affordable Care Act and Americans’ health care, calling the confirmation process underway “a clear attempt to jam through a Supreme Court nominee who will take healthcare away from millions of people during a deadly pandemic.”

On Tuesday, during Harris’ half-hour to ask Barrett questions, she used the spotlight to once again set the stage for the more than 5 million people who watched on the three major cable channels. “Before I begin, I want to just take a moment to talk directly to the American people about where we are and how we got here,” she said.

The audience at home was her jury, and Barrett was the witness whose testimony she was trying to poke holes in. When Harris finally got to her questions, they were carefully crafted to force Barrett to provide non-answers.

She repeatedly asked Barrett, for instance, if she agreed with Chief Justice John Roberts’ ruling that voting discrimination still exists, to which Barrett replied she wouldn’t endorse or denounce any ruling. “Do you call it a proposition or a fact? Are you saying you do not agree with the fact?” Harris said. “I just want to understand, are you saying that you refuse to dispute a known fact or that you refuse to agree with a known fact?”

Harris elicited affirmative answers from Harris that the coronavirus is an infection and cigarettes cause cancer. But when asked yet again if she believes climate change is real and a result of man-made pollution, Barrett demurred.

Rather than going right to the end of her time with direct questions, Harris instead gave her own closing argument. “Sadly, my Senate Republican colleagues are doing I believe great harm with this illegitimate process. And if they are successful it has the potential to do great damage,” Harris said.

Barrett appears set to be confirmed to the High Court before the election ends on Nov. 3. Her ascent would clearly tip the balance of the court, taking the seat once held by liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg and giving it to a deeply conservative jurist. The tentative timeline has a vote on Oct. 22. That would have her in place should any election issues head to the courts, and well ahead of a challenge to the Affordable Care Act that’s due a week after Election Day.

Harris was clear about that final point. “Republicans are scrambling to confirm this nominee as fast as possible because they need one more Trump judge on the bench before November 10th to win and strike down the entire Affordable Care Act,” Harris said before dropping in one of Biden waters’ favorite verbal tics. “This is not hyperbole.”

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Write to Philip Elliott at [email protected]

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