The nomination of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme court is another milestone in President Donald Trump's rightward shift of the top US judicial body and has dismayed liberals worried about key social issues, including health care.
Trump's announcement during a flag-festooned White House Rose Garden ceremony sets off a scramble by Senate Republicans to confirm Barrett before election day in five and a half weeks, as Trump seeks a second term in office.
If confirmed by the Senate to replace liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at age 87 on September 18, Barrett would push its conservative majority to a commanding 6-3.
Like Trump's two other appointees, Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, Barrett, 48, is young enough that she could serve for decades in the lifetime job, leaving a lasting conservative imprint.
"The stakes for our country are incredibly high, rulings that the Supreme Court will issue in the coming years will decide the survival of our Second Amendment (which guarantees the right to bear arms), our religious liberty, our public safety and so much more," Trump said.
Democrats are set to make the fate of the Obamacare healthcare law a key part of the confirmation fight.
Barrett could be on the bench for the court's November 10 oral arguments in a case in which Trump and fellow Republicans are seeking to invalidate the 2010 law, formally called the Affordable Care Act.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement praising Barrett and pledging to move forward quickly with the confirmation process. But Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden repeated his call for the appointment to be made by the winner of the November 3 election.
"The Senate should not act on this vacancy until after the American people select their next president and the next Congress," Biden said.
With Trump's fellow Republicans holding a 53-47 Senate majority, confirmation appears certain, though Democrats may try to make it as difficult as possible.
Barrett has described influential conservative Justice Antonin Scalia as her mentor, saying 'his judicial philosophy is mine too'.
On the Supreme court, Scalia voted to curb abortion rights, dissented when the court legalised gay marriage, and backed broad gun rights.
Barrett, a devout Roman Catholic was appointed by Trump to the Chicago-based 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 and is a favourite of religious conservatives, a key Trump voter bloc.
"Today it is my honour to nominate one of our nation's most brilliant and gifted legal minds to the Supreme Court," Trump said.
Trump noted that she would be the first mother of school-age children ever on the court. Along with her lawyer husband, her seven children, two of whom were adopted from Haiti, were in the audience.
Abortion rights advocates have voiced concern that Barrett could cast a vote for overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalising abortion nationwide. On the 7th Circuit, she has voted in favour of one of Trump's hardline immigration policies, embraced gun rights and authored a ruling making it easier for college students accused of campus sexual assaults to sue their institutions.
"Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell have made it clear they will pull out all the stops to jam through another right-wing Supreme Court nominee - even if that means breaking their own rule pertaining to election-year appointments," Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said.
"Justice Ginsburg must be turning over in her grave up in heaven," top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said, "to see that the person they chose seems to be intent on undoing all the things that Ginsburg did."
© AP 2020