Trump’s appointee Barrett takes part in first Supreme Court arguments

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Amy Coney Barrett participated in her first case as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, with President Donald Trump’s appointee welcomed by Chief Justice John Roberts before questioning one of the lawyers in a dispute in which an environmental group is seeking government documents.

Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, Barrett made her debut not in a public session in the ornate courtroom where the justices usually hear cases but rather in a teleconference format, with a live audio feed available to the public.

Although Barrett officially started work last Tuesday, she did not participate in Friday’s private conference in which the justices discussed what new cases to hear because she was preparing for this week’s arguments, a court spokeswoman said.

“It gives me great pleasure on behalf of myself and my colleagues to welcome Justice Barrett to the court,” Chief Justice John Roberts said at the outset. “… Justice Barrett, we wish you a long and happy career in our common calling.”

With the justices taking turn by seniority, Barrett was the last to weigh in on the case brought by the Sierra Club seeking documents related to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s consideration of a regulation finalized in 2014. The agency concluded that the environmental regulation for cooling water intake structures that are used by power plants and other industrial facilities would not adversely affect endangered species, including fish, turtles and shellfish.

Barrett, following fellow Trump appointee Justice Brett Kavanaugh, continued with his line of questioning on how courts determine which internal agency documents are subject to a federal law called the Freedom of Information Act, which lets people request certain materials.

“What other factors would a court consider?” Barrett asked, in relation to how courts decide whether a draft document, as opposed to a final report, can be sought as part of such a request.

A federal judge in California ruled in 2017 that 11 documents had to be disclosed. The government appealed and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 ruled partly for the government but still found that nine documents had to be released.

It was the first of two cases on Monday. The second was an employment benefits dispute involving a former railroad worker.

The Republican-led Senate confirmed Barrett one week ago, with Democrats strongly opposed. Trump on Sept. 26 announced Barrett as his nominee to replace liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died of cancer on Sept. 18. Barrett previously was appointed by Trump as a federal appeals court judge in 2017 after she served as a law professor at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

Barrett’s confirmation expanded the Supreme Court’s conservative majority to 6-3.

Monday’s case was argued a day before the U.S. election in which the Republican president is seeking a second term in office against Democratic challenger Joe Biden. In campaign rallies, Trump has touted his appointment of Barrett, receiving applause from his supporters.

No Supreme Court justice has ever been confirmed so close to a presidential election. At 48, Barrett could serve in her lifetime post for decades alongside Trump’s two other Supreme Court appointees, Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.

The first major case in which Barrett will take part comes on Wednesday when the court hears a religious rights dispute involving the city of Philadelphia’s refusal to place children for foster care with a Catholic agency that bars same-sex couples from serving as foster parents.

Next week, the court hears arguments in litigation in which Trump and Republican-governed states are seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 healthcare law also called Obamacare that has helped millions of Americans obtain medical insurance.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

With two cases, shorthanded U.S. Supreme Court opens new term amid drama

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court returned to work on Monday for the first time since liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and heard arguments in two cases, opening its new term as Senate Republicans pursued quick confirmation of President Donald Trump’s conservative nominee to replace her.

At least at the outset of the term, the cases are being argued as they were at the end of the last term by teleconference because of the coronavirus pandemic.

With eight justices rather than the usual nine, the court started a term due to run through next June that includes several major cases including one that will decide the fate of the Obamacare healthcare law. Its last term ended in July.

Before the first argument began, Chief Justice John Roberts paid tribute to Ginsburg, calling her a “dear friend and treasured colleague” and sent “our condolences to her children, extended family and countless admirers.” Roberts said that a memorial service will at some point be held in the courtroom.

Ginsburg died on Sept. 18 at age 87. Trump on Sept. 26 nominated federal appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace her, and asked the Republican-led Senate to confirm her by the Nov. 3 U.S. election. If confirmed, Barrett would give the court a 6-3 conservative majority.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated on Saturday that Barrett’s confirmation hearings, due to be held next week, will proceed as planned even though two Republicans on the Judiciary Committee had contracted the coronavirus. Trump himself remained hospitalized with COVID-19 on Monday.

Trump has said he wants Barrett to be confirmed before Election Day so she could cast a decisive vote in any election-related dispute, potentially in his favor. He has said he expects the Supreme Court to decide the outcome of the election, though it has done so only once – the disputed 2000 contest ultimately awarded to Republican George W. Bush.

The first oral argument of the term centered on a system used by the state of Delaware that requires some of its courts to be ideologically balanced. The justices are weighing the state’s appeal defending its law, which requires that no more than half of the judges on certain courts be affiliated with one particular political party. It also requires that Delaware judges be affiliated with one of the two major political parties in the state.

During the argument, some of the justices questioned whether challenger James Adams, who has said he wants to serve as a judge, had legal standing to bring his claim, in part because he never formally applied. Roberts said that if someone approached him about a job as a clerk but never applied, “I really wouldn’t know what to make of it.”

The second case argued before the justices was a dispute between Texas and New Mexico over rights to the waters of the Pecos River that runs through both states.

On Wednesday, the justices weigh a multibillion-dollar software copyright dispute between Alphabet Inc’s Google and Oracle Corp. The case involves Oracle’s accusation that Google infringed its software copyrights to build the Android operating system used in smartphones.

Two big cases are scheduled for November.

On Nov. 10, a week after Election Day, the court is due to hear arguments in a case in which a group of Democratic-led states including California and New York are striving to preserve the 2010 Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Republican-led states and Trump’s administration are waging a court battle to strike down Obamacare.

The court hears another major case on Nov. 4 concerning the scope of religious-rights exemptions to certain federal laws. The dispute arose from Philadelphia’s decision to bar a local Roman Catholic entity from participating in the Democratic-governed city’s foster-care program because the organization prohibits same-sex couples from serving as foster parents.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump impeachment trial opens; White House faulted on Ukraine aid freeze

By Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the Senate formally opened the impeachment trial on whether to remove Donald Trump from office, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog on Thursday dealt the Republican president a blow by concluding that the White House violated the law by withholding security aid approved for Ukraine by U.S. lawmakers.

Democrat Adam Schiff, who heads a team of seven House of Representatives members who will serve as prosecutors, appeared on the Senate floor to read the two charges passed by the House on Dec. 18 accusing Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress arising from his dealings with Ukraine.

The trial’s opening formalities were to continue later in the day, with U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts set to be sworn in to preside over the proceedings and then swear in all 100 senators to serve as jurors. Opening statements in the trial, only the third in U.S. history, are expected on Tuesday.

The abuse of power cited by the House included Trump’s withholding of $391 million in security aid for Ukraine, a move Democrats have said was aimed at pressuring Kiev into investigating political rival Joe Biden, the president’s possible opponent in the Nov. 3 U.S. election.

“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded, referring to the fact that Congress had already voted to appropriate the funds.

An arm of Congress, the GAO is viewed as a top auditing agency for the federal government that advises lawmakers and various government entities on how taxpayer dollars are spent.

While the agency’s assessment was a setback to Trump, it was unclear how or even if it would figure in his trial in the Republican-led Senate given that key issues such as whether witnesses will appear or new evidence will be considered remain up in the air.

Democrats said the GAO report showed the importance of the Senate hearing from witnesses and considering new documents in the trial.

“This reinforces – again – the need for documents and eyewitnesses in the Senate,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a news conference.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has said senators should consider only the evidence amassed by the House.

The House voted on Wednesday 228-193, largely along party lines, to give the Senate the task of putting Trump on trial. The Senate is expected to acquit him, keeping Trump in office, as none of its 53 Republicans has voiced support for removing him, a step that requires a two-thirds majority.

Trump has denied wrongdoing and has called the impeachment process a sham.


The GAO issued its opinion after receiving a letter inquiring about the aid from Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen. The agency’s findings are not legally binding, but its reports are seen by lawmakers as objective, reliable and generally uncontested. The GAO has no prosecutorial power.

Its report noted that the U.S. Constitution grants a president no unilateral authority to withhold funds in the way that Trump did. Instead, a president has a “strictly circumscribed authority” to withhold spending only in limited circumstances expressly provided by law. Holding up money for a policy reason, which the Trump administration did in this case, is not permitted, the report said.

Asked about the GAO report, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy defended Trump’s withholding of aid, citing concerns about corruption in Ukraine’s new government.

“I think it was the rightful thing to do,” McCarthy told a news conference.

Congress approved the $391 million to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. The money ultimately was provided to Kiev in September after the controversy had spilled into public view.

A pivotal event leading to Trump’s impeachment was a July 25 call in which he asked Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden over unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and to look into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

Schiff indicated that the House prosecutors were considering calling Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, as a witness if the Senate permits testimony in the trial.

“We are continuing to review his (media) interviews and the materials he has provided to evaluate his potential testimony in the Senate trial,” Schiff said in a statement.

Giuliani has said Parnas, a Ukraine-born U.S. citizen, helped him in investigating the Bidens. Documents released this week indicate Parnas was also involved in monitoring the movements of former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch before Trump removed her in May after being urged to do so by Giuliani.

Democrats have said Trump abused his power by asking a foreign government to interfere in a U.S. election for his own benefit at the expense of American national security.

Republicans have argued that Trump’s actions did not rise to the level of impeachable offenses. They have accused Democrats of using the Ukraine affair as a way to nullify Trump’s 2016 election victory.

The Senate will formally notify the White House of Trump’s impending trial later on Thursday.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Will Dunham)