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Distancing, Video, Masks at Altered Senate Judiciary Hearing

May 6, 2020, 11:32 PM

Senate Judiciary Committee became one of the first congressional panels to adapt to new ways over the coronavirus pandemic as senators showed up in-person and via teleconference to hear testimony from President Donald Trump’s pick for the second highest court in the land.

Despite a few instances where audio from the video stream was difficult to hear, the new format went smoothly—a common theme as more government institutions embrace new procedures to carry out work amid the health crisis. The U.S. Supreme Court this week made history when it began a series of teleconference oral arguments that were livestreamed to the public.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell thanked the committee in remarks on the Senate floor during the hearing, saying he was “grateful to Chairman (Lindsey) Graham and all the other chairmen who are finding creative ways to conduct important business.”

The confirmation hearing for Justin Walker to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was held in a hearing room larger than the Judiciary Committee’s typical venue also in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

The dozen or so members who showed in-person—including Graham (R-S.C.) and the panel’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California—were separated by six feet and were situated in two different levels of seating.

Although face masks were worn by staff during the proceeding, members didn’t wear them when they spoke and Walker took his off to testify.

A handful lawmakers chose to participate remotely and appeared on a video screen, a practice being tried on Capitol Hill this week as a way of honoring social distancing customs and accommodating senators.

Those lawmakers included Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) , Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Marsha Balckburn (R-Tenn.).

Virus Priorities

While the new procedures appeared to work well, the members quibbled over priorities during the pandemic.

That sniping fell along the usual partisan lines as Republicans characterized Democrats as not wanting to get back to work after several weeks away from Washington due to the health crisis.

“I’ve been amazed that there are members of the Senate and Congress generally who don’t think it’s okay for us to be here doing our job,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said from one of the Capitol’s largest hearing rooms that was virtually empty.

It’s O.K. for grocery clerks, doctors, and police officers to show up for their jobs, “but heaven forbid the United States Congress show up to do our job,” he said in reference to those praised widely who are on the front lines of the coronavirus response.

Democrats reiterated what they’d said in a letter to Graham last week, asking him to delay the hearing and deal with issues related to the virus instead. They pushed back on the decision to even hold a hearing for Justin Walker’s nomination to the D.C. Circuit months before the man he would replace is scheduled to step aside.

“Nobody is talking about not wanting to do our jobs,” said Hirono.

“We do object to the subject of this hearing because rather than dealing with issues that have to do with the pandemic and the health care crisis facing our country we are having a hearing for a nominee whose seat that he would occupy isn’t even open until September,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Madison Alder in Washington at malder@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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