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Environmentalists, Democrats fault Trump court pick Barrett on climate evasion

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Environmental groups and Democrats on Thursday criticized President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett for dodging questions during her Senate confirmation hearing about climate change, while Republicans rallied to her defense.

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett pauses while testifying on the third day of her U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 14, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool

Barrett, a conservative federal appeals court judge, declined during questioning by members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to give her views on climate change and whether human activities were contributing to it.

During the hearing, Barrett frustrated Democrats by refusing to answer questions on a series of issues - also including abortion, presidential powers, voting rights and the Obamacare law - because cases involving these matters could come before the court. Democrats already were strongly opposed to her nomination to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, though Barrett’s confirmation in the Republican-led Senate seems certain.

The League of Conservation Voters on Thursday urged senators not to confirm Barrett.

“The idea that a nominee to a lifetime position on the Supreme Court has not developed a view on the existential threat of climate crisis is inexcusable and disqualifying for a position that will have a significant impact on our ability to address climate change,” the environmental group’s president Gene Karpinski wrote in a letter to senators.

Senator Kamala Harris, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, asked Barrett on Wednesday whether the nominee believed that COVID-19 is infectious and whether smoking causes cancer. In both cases, Barrett said yes.

Harris then asked, “Do you believe that climate change is happening and that it’s threatening the air we breathe and the water we drink?”

Barrett demurred, saying climate change is a “very contentious matter of public debate. I will not express a view on a matter of public policy, especially when that is politically controversial.”

Environmental groups said her evasion was equivalent to denying the existence of climate change or that it is being caused by human activities such as the burning of fossils fuels.

“The scientific evidence of climate change is beyond reasonable doubt or debate, yet Amy Coney Barrett refused to acknowledge reality,” said Jamal Raad, campaign director of Evergreen Action, a political action group founded by former campaign staffers of Washington state Governor Jay Inslee.

Inslee’s unsuccessful bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination focused on the issue of climate change.

Raad also said Barrett’s remarks were disqualifying.

During the final day of Barrett’s confirmation hearing on Thursday, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin faulted Barrett for her refusal to answer climate-related questions.

“I would be afraid to ask her about the presence of gravity on Earth. She may decline to answer because it may come up in a case, you know, it could come before the court some day,” Durbin said.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the committee’s chairman, responded to the Democratic criticism by saying, “As to climate change, anybody who has doubts about climate change is weird, in your world. You’re trying to make her something she is not.”

If confirmed, Barrett would be on the bench when the court hears arguments in a climate-related case that it took up on Oct. 2.

The justices will hear an appeal by energy companies including BP PLC, Chevron Corp, Exxon Mobil Corp and Royal Dutch Shell <PLC RDSa.L> contesting a lawsuit by the city of Baltimore seeking damages for the impact of climate change, focusing on the burning of oil produced by the companies.

Barrett’s father, now retired, was an attorney for Shell.

Trump has rolled back numerous environmental regulations and announced that the United States was withdrawing from an international agreement designed to combat climate change.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Will Dunham