Earlier this week, the American public watched carefully the congressional hearings of President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett. For four days, Barrett answered questions about her background and legal opinions.
To a non-American, this may have seemed like a useless exercise, given that the Republicans hold a 57-43 majority over the Democrats in the Senate, so Barrett’s confirmation is sure to sail through.
Also, historically, the Senate has rarely rejected a president’s Supreme Court nominee. The last time this happened was in 1987, when the Democratic-controlled Senate refused to confirm Republican President Ronald Regan’s nomination of Robert H Bork for his conservative judicial opinions on key issues ranging from civil rights to abortion.
Given these hearings have a predetermined outcome, they often turn into political theatre of sorts. But this does not mean they are not important.
One of the most contentious aspects of Barrett’s confirmation hearings was their timing. President Trump decided to push forward with the nomination just days after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September. The hearings were scheduled just weeks before the US elections, amidst a public health emergency and COVID-19 outbreaks in the White House and Congress.
Democrats decried the fact that the Senate was spending time on this confirmation process rather than passing a COVID-19 economic relief package, while also putting people in danger by gathering individuals in one room to conduct the hearings. This, many argued, unnecessarily exposed Senators and others to potential COVID-19 contamination.
There are two main reasons why the Republicans are rushing.
First, the Supreme Court is set to adjudicate a case on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – President Barack Obama’s major domestic policy achievement that reformed the healthcare system and expanded health insurance coverage – and both Trump and the Republicans are counting on Barrett to help overturn it.
Second, it is looking more and more likely Democratic challenger Joe Biden will defeat Trump in the upcoming elections, while Republicans may lose control of the Senate. Solidifying a conservative majority by confirming three Supreme Court nominations by the incumbent Republican president represents a solid victory for the Republican party, one that could outlast a Democrat-controlled presidency and congress.
But by pushing forward with these rushed hearings, Republicans are going against their own past practices. When President Obama had the opportunity to nominate a Supreme Court judge prior to the 2016 presidential election, Senate Republicans refused to hold any hearings and insisted the process should be delayed until after Americans voted. This time, when it is in their political interest to rush a nomination ahead of the polls, they seem to have no qualms about doing it.
Democrats on the committee, for their part, are using the hearings not just to grill Bennett on important political issues that she will have to decide on as a Supreme Court justice, but also to appeal to voters. Democrats, including vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris, used their allotted time to articulate why these hearings are problematic and how they reflect the failed leadership of President Trump and the Republican Party.
Barrett gave little information about how she would rule on flashpoint issues in American politics today, such as abortion, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), gun rights cases, and legal disputes that could arise in the upcoming presidential election. She was asked about her personal views, which she masterfully avoided answering. She did, however, clearly describe her judicial philosophy, known as originalism. When asked to describe this concept she said the following:
“I interpret the Constitution as a law, that I interpret its text as text and I understand it to have the meaning that it had at the time people ratified it. So that meaning doesn’t change over time. And it’s not up to me to update it or infuse my own policy views into it.”
This judicial philosophy, adopted by conservative judges reflects a very narrow view of the rights that emanate from the US constitution. It limits them to what is mentioned in the text and avoids interpretations that could ensure a plethora of rights that are not directly delineated or established by unchallenged legal precedent (known as “super precedent”).
The US constitution was drafted in 1787, and the last amendment was added in 1992. It is a living, breathing body of legal principles that more progressive judges interpret more liberally to better apply them to modern society and challenges, known as non-originalism.
Judges that follow an originalist judicial philosophy are less likely to ensure a right to affordable healthcare or a woman’s right to have an abortion, for example, and are more likely to reaffirm the rights of gun owners, upholding the provisions of the second amendment of the constitution (the right to bear arms).
Barrett clerked for one of the most conservative Supreme Court judges in US history, Antonin Scalia, whom she sees as a role model. As a Federal Appeals court judge, she issued several conservative rulings, and as an academic at Notre Dame Law School, she voiced her conservative legal philosophy in various publications.
This means there is a strong possibility of her supporting decisions that could overturn legal precedents like the 1973 ruling in the Roe v Wade case, which established that the constitution protects a woman’s right to abortion.
Barrett’s views on the ACA are also known. She critiqued Chief Justice John Robert’s 2012 decision to uphold key parts of the ACA, arguing he interpreted the law “beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute”. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Trump administration-backed lawsuit against the ACA one week after the election. Trump’s two other Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, will almost certainly vote in favour of striking down the law.
Although initially there was public opposition to Barrett’s confirmation ahead of the elections, some American voters seem to be warming up to her. Some new polling reveals that 48 percent of voters want her confirmed, 31 do not, and 21 percent are undecided.
Democrats can do little to prevent the confirmation of Barrett, but their use of the hearing to address US voters may have given Biden and Democratic congressional candidates a boost. Mid-October polls show that Biden’s lead over Trump continues to rise.
Three Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are also facing significant re-election challengers, including the committee chairman Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Joni Ernst in Iowa, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina. The hearings could affect their chances of re-election.
The hearings also helped mobilise grassroots women’s rights organisations. Over the weekend, thousands protested Barrett’s nomination in Washington, DC and other American cities across all 50 states.
A Democratic-controlled White House, Senate, and House of Representatives would be a powerful buffer against a conservative Supreme Court. One thing Democrats can do, at least in theory, is add justices to the Supreme Court to overturn the conservative majority. The constitution does not specify a certain number of Supreme Court justices. The practice of having nine seats was decided on by Congress in 1869 and has not been changed ever since.
If Democrats control both the House and the Senate, they can pass new legislation to overturn this decision. Past attempts to do this have failed, as public opinion tends not to support such a move. However, we live in a new era, where US politics is unpredictable. And as the Senate’s top Democrat Chuck Schumer has said, “Everything is on the table.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
The US just broke its record for the highest number of new coronavirus cases in a day
The United States broke its record for the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases reported in a single day on Friday, an alarming sign that what some epidemiologists are calling a “third wave” of infections is spreading at breakneck speed as winter approaches.
According to the New York Times, by the end of the day on Friday at least 85,085 cases were reported in states across the country — about 10,000 cases more than the previous same-day high on July 16.
Public health experts had long warned that uneven compliance with social distancing guidelines, inadequate contact tracing programs, and premature reopenings of indoor venues were creating conditions for a resurgence of virus transmission after its summer peak, and that is what appears to be happening now.
The new case numbers also show that the geographic spread is wider than during past spikes. According to an internal report produced on Thursday for officials at the Department of Health and Human Services obtained by the Washington Post, more than 170 counties across 36 states have been designated rapidly rising hotspots. And 24 states have broken single-day records of new cases in the past two weeks, the Post reports.
Also concerning is that in the past month there has been a 40 percent rise in the number of people hospitalized for Covid-19 infections. Deaths have not surged so far, but epidemiologists have pointed out that there can be a significant time lag between a surge in cases and deaths tied to that surge.
“Today’s cases represent infections that probably happened a week or two ago,” Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray told Vox’s Dylan Scott in July. “Today’s deaths represent cases that were diagnosed possibly up to a month ago, so infections that were up to six weeks ago or more.”
But public health experts have pointed to state-level policies on distancing and contact-tracing as a key driver of the current uptick. Moreover, the high rates at which coronavirus tests are coming back positive in many states — a key data point for estimating the true spread of the virus — and the surge in hospitalizations are signs that the new wave is not just a function of testing capacity. As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, a high positivity rate actually suggests that not enough tests are being done to track and contain spread in a given area.
Murray, the epidemiologist at Boston University, told the Washington Post that the wide geographic range of the new wave will make it difficult to move health care workers to hot spots. Previous spikes were concentrated in certain communities, allowing medical professionals from less affected areas to be moved to deal with outbreaks. But the breadth of the current outbreak could tax US health care capacity in a manner that has not been seen before.
And Murray also pointed out that this wave is more dangerous that the two that preceded it because it started from a higher point of infections.
“We are starting this wave much higher than either of the previous waves,” she told the Post. “And it will simply keep going up until people and officials decide to do something about it.”
Experts have warned about a third wave for a while
Medical professionals, epidemiologists and many public health officials have long pointed out the risk of a third wave.
As Vox’s German Lopez wrote in early October, experts warned that a third wave looked likely in light of the fact that the virus was never really suppressed nationally, and that premature reopening, encouraged most aggressively by Trump and Republican governors, would simply accelerate its spread:
Consider Florida. Last month, the state reopened bars and, more recently, restaurants, despite the high risk of these indoor spaces. After Florida previously opened bars, in June, experts said the establishments were largely to blame for the state’s massive Covid-19 outbreak in the summer. As Florida reopens now, it has roughly two to three times the number of Covid-19 cases that it had in early June, and its high test positivity rate suggests it’s still likely missing a lot of cases. The state is fanning its flames while its most recent fire is nowhere near extinguished.
This is, in effect, what much of the country is doing now as it rushes to reopens schools, particularly colleges and universities, and risky indoor spaces. Coupled with recent Labor Day celebrations, experts worry that’s already leading to a new increase in Covid-19 cases.
Experts have pointed out that Trump’s persistent agenda to downplay the dangers of the virus — and his suggestions that the news of a third wave is a media conspiracy designed to throw the election in Democrats’ favor — could intensify the problem as the virus is made into an increasingly partisan issue. The president has repeatedly failed to take responsibly for the US’ troubled pandemic response, including at the second presidential debate. He has instead blamed China and Democrats for the country’s problems, while leaving it to individual states to create plans for lower the rate of infection.
Some states have had more success in reducing infection than others, but none has managed to eliminate spread altogether. And more worrying still is the fact that cold weather and flu season have yet to fully settle in many states as winter approaches.
The good news is that we know how to counteract further spread.
“None of the ideas to prevent all of this are shocking or new,” Lopez recently wrote. “They’re all things people have heard before: More testing and contact tracing to isolate people who are infected, get their close contacts to quarantine, and deploy broader restrictions as necessary. More masking, including mandates in the 17 states that don’t have one. More careful, phased reopenings. More social distancing.”
‘A Disturbing Pattern’: ICE Detainees Were Pressured to Have Gynecological Surgery, Doctors Say
A report drafted by a team of independent doctors and experts found a “disturbing pattern” of questionable gynecological surgical procedures performed on female detainees at an ICE detention center in Georgia.
The medical professionals say they reviewed more than 3,200 pages of records from 19 women who “allege medical maltreatment during detention” at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, which has emerged at the center of a political firestorm following complaints from women held at the facility.
The report alleges a number of women were pressured to have “unnecessary surgery” without an adequate discussion about the risks, benefits, or alternatives.
“Our findings reveal a disturbing pattern that warrants further investigation: one in which many women either underwent abdominal surgery or were pressured to have a surgery that was not medically indicated and to which they did not consent,” the authors, including nine board-certified OB-GYNs affiliated with major academic medical centers and two nursing experts, wrote in the report. “None of the women appear to have received adequate informed consent.”
The report represents the most extensive examination of medical records among detainees at the facility to have emerged since a September whistleblower complaint alleged a pattern of “jarring medical neglect” and confusing medical care at Irwin. The report’s authors include doctors affiliated with Vanderbilt University, Northwestern University, and Baylor College of Medicine. The medical experts developed the report in coordination with lawyers representing detainees and a coalition of advocacy groups.
VICE News reviewed a copy of the report, which was drafted as a five-page executive summary, on Friday. The report was delivered to members of Congress on Thursday, but has not yet been publicly released. Its existence was first reported by the LA Times.
The document details accounts of women who were treated by a local gynecologist named Dr. Mahendra Amin, who has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
In a statement, an attorney for Amin noted that the report did not involve a complete review of all the relevant medical records, and called the doctors and nursing experts’ review “severely incomplete, at best.”
“Any serious medical professional would agree that one cannot possibly come to a conclusion regarding the appropriateness of a medical procedure without reviewing all of the relevant medical records, especially the records from the physician who performed the procedure and the hospital where the procedure was performed,” Amin’s attorney, Scott Grubman, wrote in the statement.
Amin is fully cooperating with official investigators and he “looks forward to the investigations clearing his good name and reputation,” Grubman said.
The Irwin County Detention Center is run by the private prison company LaSalle Corrections and houses immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
A spokesperson for ICE declined to comment specifically on the report on Friday, citing an ongoing investigation by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general. LaSalle Corrections has denied wrongdoing in the past, and did not immediately respond to questions about the report from VICE News on Friday.
The report says that reviewed records, which include sworn declarations and transcribed telephone interviews, suggested that Amin’s findings justifying surgery appear to be unsupported “by all other available sources of information.”
“There are indications that both Dr. Amin and the referring detention facility took advantage of the vulnerability of women in detention to pressure them to agree to overly aggressive, inappropriate, and unconsented medical care,” the document alleges.
Women detained at Irwin, the document goes on, faced “pressure to have unnecessary surgery without a discussion of risks, benefits, or alternatives, including one woman who was told she needed removal of her uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.”
The report found that several women indicated that they’d been referred for psychiatric treatment if they refused gynecological procedures.
One woman, who believed she was going to have a cyst drained at Amin’s office, was instead taken to the local Irwin County Hospital for surgery, according to the report.
“When she attempted to refuse, she was told that she could die if she didn’t have surgery.”
“When she attempted to refuse, she was told that she could die if she didn’t have surgery and, at the same time, told that ICE might deny a request for surgery if she changed her mind later,” the report says.
Women were sometimes referred to the gynecologist even if they didn’t have gynecological complaints, according to the report.
The report alleges that unnecessary transvaginal procedures were performed without consent, and imaging results were exaggerated to justify surgeries while less invasive treatments were not “adequately pursued.”
In an interview with The Washington Post on Friday, however, one of the authors said it appears Amin might have saved a woman’s life in one instance, in a detail that isn’t mentioned in the report.
Dr. Ted Anderson, director of gynecology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a member of the review team, told the Post that Amin had incorrectly diagnosed a woman with fibroids. But then Amin found that she had cancer and appropriately performed a hysterectomy, Anderson told the Post.
The report’s authors state they only uncovered one signed consent form, which they describe as “an English language consent for a woman whose primary language appears to be Spanish.”
Yet they also acknowledge that they did not obtain all of the patients’ medical records.
“Records produced by the Irwin County Detention Center, Irwin County Hospital, and by Dr. Amin appear to be incomplete,” the report says. “In some cases, fewer than 20 pages of medical records were provided. No imaging studies were produced. In many cases, referral records, operative notes, pathology reports, hospital records, and imaging reports were either entirely missing or incomplete, and office notes were nearly illegible.”
Amin’s attorney argued that the lack of access to the complete patients’ records should be seen as a fatal flaw in the report’s findings.
“Importantly, only four ICE detainees have ever requested medical records from Dr. Amin’s office, and only five ICE detainees have ever requested records from the hospital,” Grubman wrote. “In fact, upon review, it appears that, for the vast majority of patients included in the cited report, no records were requested from either Dr. Amin or Irwin County Hospital.”
Those requests overlap, he said, meaning fewer than nine detainees requested their records directly from the hospital or the doctor’s office.
“The report states that the medical records that were reviewed did not contain informed consent forms,” Grubman wrote. “However, these forms are contained in the medical records maintained by the doctor’s office and/or the hospital which, again, were not reviewed.”
Anderson told VICE News in an interview Friday evening that the team believes the records they reviewed were sufficient to form conclusions. And he said the group also recovered records from the Irwin County Detention Center, which had been forwarded to the facility from Amin’s office and from the hospital.
“For each of the 19 women, there is some medical or psychiatric record,” said Anderson, who previously served as the president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the country’s premiere professional organization for OB-GYNs.
“Is there enough data to say this is overly aggressive or unnecessary in most cases? Yes.”
“Are these records 100% complete? Absolutely not,” said Dr. Michelle Debbink, a board-certified OB-GYN based in Salt Lake City, who was not a part of the team behind the report but did review the records of six women who underwent gynecological care while at Irwin. “Is there enough data to say this is overly aggressive or unnecessary in most cases? Yes.”
VICE News has independently uncovered four consent forms signed by women who were detained in Irwin and treated by Amin. Three were for surgical procedures, and one was for a birth control injection. Those women or their attorneys have told VICE News they received medical treatment that they either didn’t want or didn’t understand, despite signing the forms.
Anderson argued that if the women did not understand their operations, they should not be considered to have agreed to them.
“Consent is actually a conversation that you have, and not a piece of paper,” Anderson told VICE News. “There are documents we got from the detention center in which the patients report asking why they had surgery and say they don’t understand what happened. That clearly indicates there was not informed consent.”
“It’s unclear to me that there is a pattern of appropriate informed consent conversations with these patients before they are booked for surgery, and that should be the pattern,” Debbink said. She added, “It is clear to me, from the stories that these women tell independently of one another, that they had no idea what was happening. And I personally saw zero signed consent forms.”
In September, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security, told the National Review that an initial DHS review found that early allegations included in the September whistleblower complaint were not backed up by documentation sent to Washington, D.C. by ICE. But he said an audit team would review the Irwin facility’s original records.
Scott Sutterfield, an executive with LaSalle Corrections, told VICE News on Thursday that company policy prohibits comment during pending investigations.
“However, we can assure you the allegations are being investigated by an independent office and LaSalle Corrections is fully cooperating,” he wrote in an email. “We are very confident once the facts are made public our commitment to the highest quality care will be evident.”
He added: “We are confident the facts will demonstrate the very malicious intent of others to advance a purely political agenda.”
Record-breaking Colorado wildfires force more evacuations
Officials say an elderly couple was found dead as the largest blazes in the US state’s history continue to spread.
Authorities in the US state of Colorado have issued an evacuation order for residents near Rocky Mountain National Park, as gusting winds on Saturday fanned the second-largest wildfire in the state’s history.
Officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for eastern Estes Park, a small town in northern Colorado, after wind pushed the 188,300-acre (76,200-hectare) East Troublesome Fire further east.
A red flag warning issued by the National Weather Service was in effect for the area as winds of 97 kilometres per hour (60 miles per hour) and low humidity were expected through Saturday.
“We tried to get ahead of it to get everyone safely out in an orderly fashion,” said Larimer County Sheriff’s Office spokesman David Moore. “We are expecting a very long day. Fingers crossed and prayers.”
The fire, which started on October 14, was 14 percent contained as of Saturday.
As the flames spread, authorities closed all 668 square kilometres (415 square miles) of Rocky Mountain National Park to visitors and ordered the evacuation of several mountain communities.
The blaze has killed at least two to date, after an elderly couple was found dead in their home outside the town of Grand Lake, about 30km (19 miles) from Estes Park, on Friday.
Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said Lyle and Marilyn Hileman, both in their 80s, had “refused to evacuate”, instead opting to stay in the home they had lived in for many years.
“Our parents left this world together and on their own terms. They leave a legacy of hard work and determination to overcome – something all of Grand County will need,” the family said in a statement that was read by the sheriff.
Schroetlin called the wildfire “a catastrophic event” in the small community.
More than 1,813sq km (700sq miles) of land have burned so far in the East Troublesome Fire, Larry Helmerick, fire information coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, told The Associated Press news agency this week.
Another fire in northern Colorado that began in August and is still spreading – known as the Cameron Peak Fire – has become the largest in state history.
This video gives a quick look into the types of wind conditions us and other firefighters on Cameron Peak experienced and have been experiencing over the duration of the #cameronpeakfire #cofire pic.twitter.com/8WDfE1reTc
— COFirePrev&Control (@COStateFire) October 19, 2020
As of Saturday morning, that blaze was 60 percent contained and has destroyed more than 207,000 acres (nearly 84,000 hectares), officials said.
Authorities in Colorado said this week there was a possibility the Cameron Peak Fire and the East Troublesome Fire could merge.
Scientists have pointed to climate change as making wildfires more intense across the US, among other major climate events, such as storms and droughts.
Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said drought intensified the blazes in the state.
She said it is “just a matter of time” until the wildfire threat affects more people, who are moving closer to forests.
“If I had a panic button, I would push it – because we have put millions of homes in harm’s way across the Western US,” Balch told AP news agency.
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