Looking Back at New Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Life and Judicial Views
Earlier this month, 23 years after graduating law school and embarking on a career that took her from private practice to academia and, eventually, to a federal judgeship, Amy Coney Barrett sat before 22 United States senators in the brightest spotlight of her life.
With Barrett’s controversial confirmation Monday night to the highest court in the country, the spotlight isn’t dimming anytime soon.
The first day Barrett sat before the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Oct. 12, was to open her confirmation hearings — a process rushed in the wake of the September death of the late justice and liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Less than a month after President Donald Trump nominated her to fill Ginsburg’s seat, Barrett, 48, was confirmed for a lifetime appointment. The political process began on that Monday two weeks ago before the Judiciary Committee, which held four days of sometimes contentious hearings.
Barrett, properly masked and clad in a deep purple dress with a strand of pearls around her neck, answered no questions on that first day, though she delivered an opening statement that drew similarities between her home life and her prospective tenure as a Supreme Court justice.
“As I said when I was nominated to serve as a justice, I am used to being in a group of nine — my family,” she said, referring to her husband and seven children. “Nothing is more important to me, and I am so proud to have them behind me.”
She said then that she “believe[s] deeply in the rule of law and the place of the Supreme Court in our nation. I believe Americans of all backgrounds deserve an independent Supreme Court that interprets our Constitution and laws as they are written.”
Barrett’s confirmation is notable for a number of reasons, including that she is one of the youngest Supreme Court justices in history and, in a rarity, a parent to school-aged children. (Prior to Brett Kavanaugh being confirmed, the average age of the 10 most recent confirmed justices was about 58 years old.)
And then there’s her Catholic faith and personal views on several social issues such as abortion — a matter of deep personal conviction that has both seeped into the public discourse, raising questions regarding how Justice Barrett might now rule in the future, and touched off fierce response from her supporters who say she was targeted by anti-Catholic bigotry.
Separately Democrats have voiced sharp dismay that Barrett, an “originalist” who says she interprets the Constitution as its drafters would have intended, is replacing the late Ginsburg, who was one of the leading attorneys and then judges advancing women’s rights in the country.
Here is what you need to know about what brought Barrett to the Supreme Court and what she has said about what she believes.
Her Family Life
The eldest of seven children, Barrett was born in New Orleans to a Shell Oil attorney and a stay-at-home mom. Catholicism played a large role in her formative years, and her father, Mike Conley, still serves as a deacon at a church.
In a statement posted to his parish website in 2018, St. Catherine of Siena, her father extolled on his own thoughts about faith.
“Each of us has pivotal moments when the decisions we make and the events we experience shape who we are and what we believe,” he wrote. “They are not random. I firmly believe the Lord is close at hand drawing us through human events closer to Him.”
Barrett’s personal life mirrors that of her upbringing.
While attending the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, she met her future husband, Jesse, and they married in 1999. (Jesse, a former assistant U.S. attorney, now works in private practice.)
They share seven children: Emma, Vivian, Tess, John Peter, Liam, Juliet and Benjamin. Most of their kids were present at Barrett’s confirmation hearing, including Vivian and John Peter, who were born in Haiti and were adopted into the family five years apart.
“Vivian came to us from Haiti,” Barrett said in her opening statement at her confirmation hearings. “When she arrived she was so weak that we were told she might never walk or talk normally. She now dead lifts as much as the male athletes at our gym, and I assure you that she has no trouble talking.”
Benjamin, their youngest, has Down syndrome and is, said Barrett, the unanimous favorite among the children.
“And the most revealing fact about Benjamin … is that his brothers and sisters unreservedly identify him as their favorite sibling,” she said in her White House nomination ceremony.
How Her Work Shaped Her Views
Catholicism provided a backdrop not only to Barrett’s family life but to her education, which included attendance at Notre Dame Law School, where she graduated in 1997 as the No. 1 student in her class.
Post-college, Barrett clerked for a U.S. court of appeals judge and, later, for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016. Her time with Scalia helped inform her current judicial philosophy as a constitutional originalist, a credo she expanded on during her Senate confirmation hearings.
“So in English, that means that I interpret the constitution as a law, that I interpret its text as text and I understand it to have the meaning that it had at the time people ratified it,” she explained to the Senate. “So that meaning doesn’t change over time. And it’s not up to me to update it or infuse my own policy views into it.”
She said her work with Scalia had been influential.
“More than the style of his writing … it was the content of Justice Scalia’s reasoning that shaped me. His judicial philosophy was straightforward: A judge must apply the law as written, not as the judge wishes it were,” she said at her confirmation hearings. “Sometimes that approach meant reaching results that he did not like. But as he put it in one of his best known opinions, that is what it means to say we have a government of laws, not of men.”
Critics of originalism argue it can instead enforce centuries-old attitudes and prejudices rather than adapting the letter of the law to the spirit of current society.
Others say the practice can be historically murky, trying to divine the founders’ intent and how that might apply to — say — questions of how police should interact with a suspect’s cellphone.
“Unfortunately, too many conservative originalists privilege the Constitution as it stood in the 18th century, when slavery was tolerated, many injustices ran rampant, and broad democratic exclusion reigned,” the progressive-leaning Constitutional Accountability Center’s president, Elizabeth Wydra, said in a statement released during the hearings.
“Judge Barrett’s record, and the litmus tests of the President who nominated her, cause CAC deep concern that she will fall more in line with these myopic conservative originalists, and would be, if confirmed, the ‘polar opposite’ of Justice Ginsburg, as Senator Klobuchar observed,” the statement continued.
Indeed, conservatives have hailed her as an ideological heir to Scalia — who was known as much for his famously scathing judicial opinions as for his staunch opposition to the courts siding with abortion and gay rights — though Barrett has gone to great lengths to underline her impartiality.
In her Senate confirmation hearings, Barrett cited a longstanding precedent of nominees deflecting questions about specific issues and how they would rule. (The rule, such as it is, is actually named for Justice Ginsburg.)
Barrett said it would undercut her impartiality.
“Justice Ginsburg, with her characteristic pithiness, used this to describe how a nominee should comport herself at a hearing,” Barrett said at her hearings. “‘No hints, no previews, no forecasts.’ That had been the practice of nominees before her. But everybody calls it the Ginsburg rule, because she stated it so concisely.”
“I don’t have any agenda,” she said — though Democratic senators noted that she took her position perhaps further than necessary, declining to say even if she believed climate change was real.
“We’re not dealing with the reality of who this person is and what she believes but some kind of artifice that we have constructed between the nominee and our questions,” Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin said during the hearings. “I would be afraid to ask her about the presence of gravity on earth. She may declined to answer because it may come up in a case.”
What She Has Said About What She Believes
A separate but parallel controversy around Barrett’s nomination and confirmation has been the role played by her personal beliefs, based on her Catholicism.
Democratic lawmakers previously referenced it when Barrett was nominated to the appellate court — though they have largely avoided such questions this year, as Republicans defended Barrett from what they called anti-Catholic discrimination and said it was unfair to assume how she might rule in the future. (Indeed, some note, presidents of both parties have previously seen their court picks rule in unexpected ways or evolve over time.)
Most fraught is the role faith plays in Barrett’s daily life — a particular subject of fascination for some that Republicans say is really a mask for ugly religious discrimination.
Barrett and her parents are reportedly members of People of Praise, a largely Catholic community in which members swear lifelong covenants to one another. The group has come under fire by some former members for its views of women and legal analysts have said swearing a lifelong oath to such a group could complicate the notion of judicial impartiality.
While Barrett declined to discuss many current issues during her confirmation hearings, she has made some of her personal and judicial opinions clear in the past.
In 2006, she signed on to a letter accompanying an ad calling for “an end to the barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade.” As The New York Times reported, Barrett has also signed her name to ads opposing the Obama administration’s contraception mandate in 2012.
That Barrett was also reportedly once a member of Notre Dame University’s anti-abortion group Faculty for Life has led progressives to question whether she could truly rule with an impartial hand on ongoing challenges to the landmark Roe v. Wade and related abortion restrictions.
“I don’t think that abortion or the right to abortion would change. I think some of the restrictions would change,” Barrett said then. “I think the question is how much freedom the court is willing to let states have in regulating abortion.”
She said in her 2017 confirmation hearings for the appellate court that a judge should “never” impose their own “personal convictions, whether they derive from faith or anywhere else, on the law.”
Barrett’s relationship to other organizations have also raised questions, such as her time as a board member at the Trinity School at Greenlawn in South Bend, Indiana
As the Associated Press reported, the private school (where a few of Barrett’s children have been enrolled in the past) “effectively barred admission to children of same-sex parents and made it plain that openly gay and lesbian teachers weren’t welcome in the classroom.” A school official told the AP that she had no direct role in formulating anti-gay policy.
Barrett’s own standing on same-sex marriage is unclear.
After Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Barrett whether she believed the Constitution affords gay people the right to marry, Barrett dodged the question during her hearings, saying she “would not ever discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.”
She later apologized for using the phrase “sexual preference,” after being told it was an offensive and outdated term.
While there’s only a few years of rulings to draw on from Barrett’s time on the federal bench, her other writings — including from a 1998 article she co-wrote for the Marquette Law Review about the death penalty — help paint a portrait of how the newest Supreme Court justice intends to balance her personal convictions with her legal demands.
“[Catholic judges] are obliged by oath, professional commitment, and the demands of citizenship to enforce the death penalty,” the article reads. “They are also obliged to adhere to their church’s teaching on moral matters.”
More recently, and, in Democrats’ eyes more troublingly, she criticized the court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Art, which Republicans are trying to dismantle.
“Chief Justice Roberts pushed the Affordable Care Act beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute,” she wrote in 2017.
In mid-November, the nine Supreme Court justices — Barrett included — will hear a Trump administration challenge to the ACA.