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US Supreme Court: Senate committee sets Oct 22 confirmation vote

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The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday set an October 22 vote on Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination as Republicans race to confirm President Donald Trump’s pick before the November 3 election.

The session is without Barrett after two long days of public testimony in which she stressed that she would be her own judge and sought to create distance between herself and past positions critical of abortion, the Affordable Care Act and other issues.

Her confirmation to take the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems inevitable, as even some Senate Democrats acknowledged.

Senator Lindsey Graham pushed past Democratic objections to set the panel’s October 22 vote on recommending her confirmation, even before final witnesses testify before and against her nomination. The committee set the vote for next week.

“This is a sham,” said Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, from Minnesota

In the minority, Democrats acknowledge there is little they can do stop Republicans from locking a conservative majority on the court for years to come. The shift would cement a 6-3 conservative majority on the court and would be the most pronounced ideological change in 30 years, from the liberal icon to the conservative appeals court judge.

But in arguments on Thursday, Democratic Senators urged their Republican colleagues to delay the process, saying the date of the confirmation was set before all the hearings had finished and as unknown speeches and writings by Barrett were still coming to light.

Facing almost 20 hours of questions from senators, the 48-year-old judge was careful not to take on the president who nominated her and sought to separate herself from writings on controversial subjects when she was an academic. She skipped past Democrats’ pressing questions about ensuring the date of next month’s election or preventing voter intimidation, both set in federal law, and the peaceful transfer of presidential power.

She also refused to express her view on whether the president can pardon himself. “It’s not one that I can offer a view,” she said in response to a question on Wednesday from Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Democrats raised those questions because President Donald Trump has done so himself.

The Senate Judiciary Committee questions Amy Coney Barrett on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, US during four days of confirmation hearings [Erin Schaff/Pool via Reuters]

When it came to significant issues that are likely to come before the court, including abortion and healthcare, Barrett repeatedly promised to keep an open mind and said neither Trump nor anyone else in the White House had tried to influence her views.

“No one has elicited from me any commitment in a case,” she said.

Nominees typically resist offering any more information than they have to, especially when the president’s party controls the Senate, as it does now. But Barrett would not engage on topics that seemed easy to swat away, including that only Congress can change the date that the election takes place.

She said she is not on a “mission to destroy the Affordable Care Act,” though she has been critical of the two Supreme Court decisions that preserved key parts of the Obama-era healthcare law. She could be on the court when it hears the latest Republican-led challenge on November 10.

Barrett is the most open opponent of abortion nominated to the Supreme Court in decades, and Democrats fear that her ascension could be a tipping point that threatens abortion rights.

There was no hiding her views in at least three letters and advertisements she signed over 15 years and her membership in Notre Dame’s Faculty for Life. So Republican senators embraced her stance, proudly stating that she was, in Graham’s words, an “unashamedly pro-life” conservative who is making history as a role model for other women.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley, from Missouri, said there “is nothing wrong with confirming a devout pro-life Christian”.

Barrett refused to say whether the 1973 landmark Roe v Wade ruling on abortion rights was correctly decided, though she signed an open letter seven years ago that called the decision “infamous”.

Democrats pressed repeatedly on the judge’s approach to healthcare, abortion, racial equity and voting rights, but conceded they were unlikely to stop her quick confirmation.

“When you are on the court,”  Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, from Rhode Island, began one question in which he asked her to keep an open mind on the high court bench. Barrett readily agreed to do so.

In an exchange with California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, Barrett resisted the invitation to explicitly endorse or reject the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments about perpetuating “racial entitlement” in a key voting rights case.

“When I said that Justice Scalia’s philosophy is mine, too, I certainly didn’t mean to say that every sentence that came out of Justice Scalia’s mouth or every sentence that he wrote is one that I would agree with,” Barrett said.

She called the Voting Rights Act a “triumph in the civil rights movement,” without discussing the specifics of the earlier challenge to it. The court will hear another challenge to the law early next year.

One of the more dramatic moments came late on Wednesday when Barrett told California Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, that she would not say whether racial discrimination in voting still exists nor express a view on climate change.

Harris asked if she agreed with Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote in a 2013 voting rights case that “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that”.

Barrett said she would “not comment on what any justice said in an opinion”.

Asked whether “climate change is happening,” Barrett said she would not engage because it is “a very contentious matter of public debate”. Barrett did, however, say she believes the novel coronavirus is infectious and that smoking causes cancer.

Along with trying to undo the healthcare law, Trump has publicly stated he wants a justice seated for any disputes arising from the election, and particularly the surge of mail-in ballots expected during the pandemic as voters prefer to vote by mail.

Barrett testified she has not spoken to Trump or his team about election cases, and declined to commit to recusing herself from any post-election cases.

She did describe what the role of the court would be if it were asked to intervene. “Certainly the court would not see itself – and would not be – electing the president. It would be applying laws that are designed to protect the election and protect the right to vote,” Barrett said.

In 2000, the court’s decision in Bush v Gore brought a Florida recount to a halt, effectively deciding the election in George W Bush’s favour. Barrett was on Bush’s legal team in 2000, in a minor role.

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Made homeless: S Korean finance minister falls foul of own rules

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Hong Nam-ki helped enact rules to protect tenants from rising costs, but landlords have instead been replacing renters – including Hong – to raise deposits. The irony lights up social media.

South Korea’s Finance Minister, the architect of rules aimed at protecting tenants and slowing deposit increases, has himself been forced to look for a new home as landlords react to the rules by quickly replacing tenants so they can bump up deposits.

Hong Nam-ki is also faced with broadening his search as the average deposit where he lives 20 minutes from parliament has soared by a third since his housing rules took effect in July, with the irony of his predicament setting the internet alight.

“Worse comes to worst, he can camp by the Presidential Blue House, right?,” one netizen asked on a real estate forum.

Seoul apartment prices have risen more than 50 percent since the left-leaning President Moon Jae-in inherited loosened mortgage rules from the previous administration three years ago.

To slow buy-to-rent demand, the Housing Lease Protection Act, led by Hong, capped increases of “jeonse” deposits at 5 percent and allowed tenants to extend standard two-year contracts for another two, unless landlords themselves move into the property.

Jeonse is a lump-sum, returnable deposit paid instead of monthly rent. Landlords invest the deposit and pocket returns.

The Act led to an unprecedented shortage of jeonse housing nationwide as landlords sought to empty properties ahead of its implementation in July so they could increase deposits for new tenants, expecting not to be able to raise them again for four years.

In Hong’s case, his lease ends in January at which time his landlord is set to move into the property, a realtor citing an industry database told the Reuters news agency, echoing local media reports.

‘Let him suffer’

“My fellow landlords, lets not rent out to Hong, let him suffer!” wrote another netizen on the popular real estate forum. “Lets make him feel what the government has done!”

Reuters could not immediately reach Hong’s landlord for comment. A spokesman for Hong declined to comment.

South Korea’s Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki was kicked out of his own home [File: Third party via Reuters]

For a comparable three-bedroom apartment in Hong’s complex in upmarket Mapo, western Seoul, the finance minister would now face deposits that have surged 32 percent in three months to 830 million South Korean won ($731,310), showed data from Naver Real Estate.

Hong, who has served the government for more than 30 years, had a net worth of 1.06 billion won ($935,044) at the end of December, government data showed.

Schadenfreude

Hong is one of a group of senior officials popularly blamed for failing to curb runaway home prices in Asia’s fourth-largest economy even after more than 20 rounds of mortgage curbs and other steps during Moon’s tenure. In that time, median Seoul apartment prices have risen more than 50 percent, KB Bank data showed.

His forced move opened a torrent of schadenfreude, with South Koreans struggling to find affordable housing mocking Hong for being a victim of his own making.

“Dear Hong, come and live in my place. I’ll give you a good deal,” said one netizen.

“Hong’s so smart. Way to go bro. Keep playing the victim and demand a bigger job from Moon,” said another.

Hong, who doubles as deputy prime minister for economic affairs, is himself a landlord but cannot move into either of his two properties. The tenant in his apartment in Uiwang, south of Seoul, has extended the lease by two years due to the new rules. The other property, in Sejong, is under construction.

At a regular parliament audit session in early October, Hong was asked by an opposition legislator if he had found a new home.

“I haven’t found one yet,” Hong said.

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Dozens of legislators urge US to boycott Saudi Arabia-hosted G20

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Embarrassment for the kingdom, the current G20 president, as it gears up to host world leaders next month.

Forty-five legislators in the United States have urged the Trump administration to boycott next month’s G20 summit in Riyadh unless Saudi authorities address key human rights concerns, according to a correspondence released on Wednesday.

The letter from US Congress members to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo comes after European legislators passed a resolution this month, calling for the European Union to downgrade its attendance at the summit, also over human rights.

The developments are a source of embarrassment for the kingdom, the current G20 president, as it gears up to host world leaders next month at what is widely seen as a crucial event for Saudi international diplomacy.

Among a suite of demands, Congress members called on Riyadh to release jailed activists, end its military campaign in neighbouring Yemen, and provide accountability for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

“As the world’s leading democracy and purveyor of human rights, our government should demand dramatic changes to Saudi Arabia’s dismal record of human rights violations,” said the letter, seen by AFP news agency.

“Should the Saudi government fail to take immediate steps to address this record, we should withdraw from the Saudi-led G20 summit and commit to making human rights reforms a condition of all future dealings with Saudi Arabia’s government.”

Jan Schakowsky and Ilhan Omar, Democratic members of the US House of Representatives, were among the 45 lawmakers who signed the letter, which was supported by advocacy group Freedom Forward.

Sixty-five members of the European Parliament have also signed a letter calling for the EU to downgrade its attendance at the virtual G20 meeting.

A downgrade would imply European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the European Council President Charles Michel will not take part in the summit if they heed the call of the legislators.

There was no immediate reaction from the Saudi government or Pompeo.

‘Whitewashing’

The administration of US President Donald Trump is a key ally and supporter of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

The legislators’ letter came as Riyadh on Wednesday began a two-day Women 20 (W20) conference before the G20 summit to be held on November 21-22.

The virtual conference sought to promote women’s rights and gender equality, but came under fire from human rights campaigners angered at the ongoing detention of several female Saudi activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul.

“While courageous women are subjected to torture for peaceful activities, the Saudi government seeks to assert itself on the international stage as a ‘reforming’ power,” said the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“W20 attendees should refuse to play a role in Saudi Arabia’s whitewashing efforts, use their platform to speak up for Saudi women’s rights champions, and advocate for the end of all discrimination against women,” it said on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia, the first Arab nation to host the G20 summit, had planned for a grand meeting that would showcase the ambitious modernisation drive of MBS.

But the novel coronavirus pandemic has dampened those hopes, making a physical summit impossible, as the kingdom faces international backlash over human rights.

Earlier this month marked two years since Khashoggi, the 59-year-old Washington Post columnist, was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, after he entered the premises to obtain paperwork for his planned marriage.

His body, which Turkish officials say was dismembered by Saudi officers, could not be found.

Activists and human rights groups have said the murder was premeditated and carried out under the directive of MBS, a charge Riyadh denies.

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Two women stabbed at Eiffel Tower in apparent racist attack

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No information about the incident was initially released by authorities, leading to criticism from online users.

French police have launched an investigation after two women were stabbed near the Eiffel Tower in an apparent racist incident.

The victims were injured with a knife near the famous Paris monument on Sunday, after an altercation involving “an unleashed dog”.

Police confirmed in a statement that they had intervened “following a police call for help for two women with stab wounds at the Champ-de-Mars” at approximately 8pm (18:00 GMT).

Two other women were in police custody on Tuesday, according to the Paris public prosecutor’s office, and an investigation for attempted intentional homicide has been opened.

Paris firefighters confirmed on Tuesday to AFP that they intervened about 8:50pm in Paris on Sunday to rescue two women.

No information about the incident was initially released by authorities, which led to criticism from online users.

People on social media have identified the two victims as Muslim women who were wearing the hijab. Al Jazeera is attempting to verify the information.

The incident follows rising tensions in France over the beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty in the Paris suburbs last Friday.

Members of the country’s Muslim community have complained of increased Islamophobia caused by a government clampdown on mosques and Muslim organisations.

More than 50 Muslim organisations are being scrutinised.

The “Cheikh Yassine Collective” has already been banned in the wake of the killing; its founder had published a video on YouTube insulting Paty.

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