Federal Courts and Nominations

Amy Coney Barrett steers the Supreme Court to the right, but not toward President Trump

WASHINGTON – To hear Democrats tell it, President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court this fall so he could destroy the Affordable Care Act and prevail in any lawsuits over a disputed election.

Two months into Barrett’s tenure, those fears look to be unfounded. But conservatives remain hopeful she will advance the cause of religious freedom, expand Second Amendment rights and cement a conservative majority on the nation’s highest court.

They have reason to be confident. As successor to the late liberal Associate Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgBarrett made the difference last month in a 5-4 ruling that blocked strict COVID-19 limits on religious gatherings in New York. That ruling set a precedent the court since has applied in California, New Jersey and Colorado.

But the 48-year-old former federal appeals court judge and law school professor has kept a low profile since joining the court a week before Election Day, leaving few clues to what kind of associate justice she will be in the decades to come.

That low profile has come amid an avalanche of high-profile cases and controversies. In her second week on the nation’s highest bench, the court heard a major case balancing religious liberty against gay rights. The next week brought the third major high court challenge to the Affordable Care Act in eight years.

The justices also have been forced to address a range of emergency petitions challenging President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, state coronavirus restrictions and pending executions. Last week, they put off a final decision on the Trump administration’s effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count used to apportion seats in Congress.

“She jumped in right in the middle of things. It must have been very, very challenging,” said Ed Whelan, president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Barrett also faced increased scrutiny because she was replacing Ginsburg, a liberal icon who fought a valiant battle against pancreatic cancer in hopes of outlasting Trump’s presidency. Barrett’s was the first nomination in nearly 30 years to change the court’s ideological balance, and based on Biden’s election, it came in the nick of time for conservatives.

“Your confirmation may launch a new chapter of conservative judicial activism unlike anything we’ve seen in decades,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware warned during Barrett’s confirmation hearing. “It could touch virtually every aspect of modern American life.”

So perhaps it was not surprising that Barrett, an Indiana resident who teaches at Notre Dame, spent her first weeks on the court immersed in the details of the cases on its docket rather than seeking out public attention. On her first day of oral arguments, she displayed a mastery of the details.

“So, in thinking about the 231g question and whether the denial of a motion to reopen determines rights or liabilities,” she said, “I think, when you look at 261.2 and the regulations, if you’re thinking about 261.2(b), you know, if a denial is essentially a conclusion that there was no new or material evidence of error, then I can see how that might qualify as a determination of a right or a liability.”

“She’s kind of keeping her head down and doing the work,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, which opposed Barrett’s confirmation. “She has followed kind of the usual rookie justice playbook by sticking to the case at hand and being very studious in the way that she presents her questions.”

Not Trump’s ‘pawn’

While keeping her head down, Barrett has shown some indication that she may not be the Trump sycophant Democrats warned she would be – and she swore she would not be.

“I certainly hope that all members of the committee have more confidence in my integrity than to think that I would allow myself to be used as a pawn to decide the election for the American people,” she said during her Senate confirmation hearing in October.

At the same time, she has not bowed to Democrats’ suggestions that she recuse herself from major cases involving the president.

In the Affordable Care Act case, the Trump administration agreed with Texas and other conservative states that the entire law should be struck down because its tax penalty was eliminated in 2017. Barrett wondered aloud why Congress would seek to eliminate the law, rather than just the tax.

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