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EXPLAINER: What you should know about Judge Amy Coney Barrett

Screen capture from CNN.

President Donald Trump has announced his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court to fill the seat vacated by the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Here is what you should know about the nominee for associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett

Age: 48

Birthplace: New Orleans

Education: B.A. from Rhodes College; J.D. from Notre Dame Law School.

Current judgeship: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (appointed in 2017 by President Trump).

Previous roles: Judge Barrett previously taught constitutional law at Notre Dame before being appointed to her current judgeship. Prior to teaching, Barrett clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia and Judge Laurence Silberman of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Religious denomination: Roman Catholic

Family: Judge Barrett is married and has seven children. Two of her children are adopted from Haiti, and one has special needs.

Judicial philosophy: Judge Barrett is a proponent of originalism, a manner of interpreting the Constitution that begins with the text and attempts to give that text the meaning it had when it was adopted; and textualism, a method of statutory interpretation that relies on the plain text of a statute to determine its meaning. Judge Barrett has previously voiced support for the judicial doctrine of stare decisis (or, following existing precedent) while maintaining that prior precedent is not sacrosanct.

Positions and rulings

Judge Barrett signed onto a statement of protest in 2012 as she objected to the birth control mandate for employers of religious orientation. The statement proclaimed the birth control mandate as an “assault on individual liberty and the rights of conscience.”

In Kanter v. Barr, Barrett filed a dissenting opinion arguing that Kanter, a felon convicted of mail fraud, should be allowed to own a gun. In her dissent, Barrett wrote, “Neither Wisconsin nor the United States has introduced data sufficient to show that disarming all nonviolent felons substantially advances its interest in keeping the public safe. … Absent evidence that [Kanter] either belongs to a dangerous category or bears individual markers of risk, permanently disqualifying Kanter from possessing a gun violates the Second Amendment.”

In 1998, Barrett co-authored an essay titled “Catholic Judges in Capital Cases.” In this essay, Barrett and the other authors argued “litigants and the general public are entitled to impartial justice, which may be something a judge who is heedful of ecclesiastical pronouncements cannot dispense.” Subsequently, the authors suggest Catholic judges might need to recuse themselves in capital cases on account of “the moral impossibility of enforcing capital punishment.” However, in her 2017 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, Barrett walked back her statements from 20 years prior saying she does not believe the same things now.

In a dissenting opinion in the case of Cook County v. Wolf, Barrett argued that litigation on the public charge rule – a rule which would deny permanent residency to immigrants which the government believed would need assistance in the future – should have proceeded. In her dissent, Barret argued the courts are “not the vehicle for resolving policy disputes.”

In 2019, Barrett joined a majority opinion in Price v. City of Chicago which, citing binding Supreme Court precedent, upheld a city ordinance which prevented “sidewalk counselors” from approaching women entering an abortion clinic.

Attacks on Barrett’s faith

Since the time Barrett was first floated as a possible replacement for former Justice Kennedy’s seat in 2018, she has received criticism on the basis of her religion. Recently, multiple news outlets disparaged Barrett’s faith by attempting to connect her beliefs to the dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. Previously, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein questioned Barrett’s fitness as a judge, telling her: “[Catholic] dogma lives loudly within you.”

The Constitution prohibits religious tests for office, including judicial appointments.

During the confirmation hearing for her appointment to the Seventh Circuit District of Appeals, Barrett responded to questions regarding the role her Catholic faith plays in her jurisprudence, saying: “If you’re asking whether I take my faith seriously and I’m a faithful Catholic, I am. Although I would stress that my personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear on the discharge of my duties as a judge.”

Additionally, Barrett’s comments during Notre Dame Law’s 2006 commencement ceremony have come under scrutiny: “And that is this: that you will always keep in mind that your legal career is but a means to an end, and as [Father Jenkins] told you this morning, that end is building the kingdom of God.” In the same speech, Barrett further explained, “While we are a community engaged in the enterprise of legal education and scholarship, we are also a community engaged in the enterprise of bringing about the kingdom of God. We are a community characterized by our love and concern for one another.”

ERLC support

ERLC President Russell Moore supports Barrett’s nomination, saying:

“I have long respected Judge Barrett, not only as a highly accomplished jurist but also as an adoptive parent active in the advocacy for adoption and for special needs children. As she goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’m confident she will lay out a thoughtful defense of commitment to the Constitution and the proper limits of judicial authority in our system of government.

“As a son of Mississippi Gulf Coast, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this is a nomination of a New Orleans-born judge who grew up in Metairie, La., which is perhaps one reason why I have paid attention to her career for years. There is no question that Judge Barrett is qualified by intellectual acumen and years of experience to serve on the highest court in the land. I am praying for her, her family, and our nation in what are sure to be tumultuous days in the weeks ahead for the entire country.

“The special circumstances of this nomination, of course, mean that this could be a highly charged confirmation process in an already polarized nation. One need not agree with the process taken by the Senate to agree that, having taken up the nomination, the Senate should treat Judge Barrett with respect and consideration. No serious person actually believes that Judge Barrett would be a theocrat imposing her religious views on a pluralistic republic. In fact, her record shows otherwise, as confirmed even by many who disagree with her rulings.

“We ought then to expect that the debate over Judge Barrett’s nomination would be about her qualifications and her record, not about her personal religious views or affiliations. That’s especially true when our country has the legacy we have sometimes had of religious bigotry – ranging from some in our history wrongly suggesting that Catholic Americans would be beholden to the pope instead of the Constitution, that Jewish Americans would have dual loyalty with Israel, that Muslim Americans would impose Sharia law, or that evangelical Americans would interpret their prophecy charts and not the law. We should expect as a country to be free from even a hint of those attitudes now, and I hope this confirmation process will debate issues and qualifications, not question the nominee’s prayer life.”

ERLC interns Justin McDowell and Jackson McNeece contributed to this article.

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  • ERLC Policy Staff