Amy Coney Barrett scrutinized over religion vs. law
Second of two parts.
Professor Amy Coney Barrett, addressing law school graduates at Notre Dame University in 2006, delivered a stark admonition to the future lawyers: She told them a law career was “but a means to an end.”
“That end is building the kingdom of God,” she said. “If you can keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer.”
As confirmation hearings begin Monday for Judge Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, she will have to answer just how different a lawyer — and judge — her faith has made her.
To her detractors, she is a “Catholic judge.” To her supporters, she is a judge who is Catholic.
The difference between those views dominated her confirmation hearing three years ago, when she won a seat on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The hearings this week are shaping up like a rerun, with Judge Barrett’s faith the chief question before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“If you’re asking whether I take my faith seriously and am a faithful Catholic, I am, although I would stress that my personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear in my discharge of duties as a judge,” Judge Barrett told senators in her October 2017 hearings.
That answer was unsatisfactory to Democrats, and they peppered Judge Barrett with pointed questions.
Republicans said the questioning was so unseemly that it began to look as if they were applying a religious test for seeking a federal office, which the Constitution specifically prohibits.
Democrats countered that the matter wasn’t about Judge Barrett’s faith, but rather how much it affects her public life.
“The dogma lives loudly within you,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee.
The judge opened the door to the issue herself in 1998 with a law review article titled “Catholic judges in capital cases.”
She suggested that an “orthodox Catholic” who adhered to the church’s teaching against capital punishment should recuse from signing an execution order.
Her critics said she was putting faith above the law. Her backers said she was doing just the opposite: saying faith must give way when the law calls for an outcome.
In fact, she was charting a middle ground, where a judge could be faithful to her own beliefs while allowing someone else to carry out the law’s obligation.
“Judges cannot — nor should they try to — align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge,” she concluded. “They should, however, conform their own behavior to the Church’s standard.”
In a speech last year to Hillsdale in D.C., the Washington campus of Hillsdale College, Judge Barrett delved deeper into the matter by saying it was folly to think only Catholic jurists grapple with their moral codes and their duties to the law.
“That’s not a challenge just for religious people. That’s a challenge for everyone,” she said. “I think it’s a dangerous road to go down to say that only religious people would not be able to separate out moral convictions from their duty.”
During her 2017 confirmation hearing, she repeatedly declined to give personal opinions on matters such as same-sex marriage. She said it was irrelevant to how she would rule.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, told Judge Barrett that he rejected that.
“I can’t tell you how many nominees have been before us in this panel for the bench, and virtually all say the same: I’m following the precedent, I’m following the law, I’m following the Constitution, don’t worry a thing about who I am, how I was raised, what my religion is, what my life experiences have been. Put it all aside,” he said. “I don’t believe that for a second.”
He said decisions in cases that reach upper courts are often close and that’s where personal beliefs come into play.
“I don’t think you can divorce yourself from life’s reality at that point. I am going to see things in a certain way based on what I’ve done, what I’ve seen, what I believe in my life, and I’m going to call it the appropriate interpretation of the law,” he said. “So I don’t buy this robot approach, that it’s just so easy, you push the law and the facts on one side and the opinion comes out the other side. Otherwise, every opinion would be a majority or a unanimous decision.”
Mr. Durbin, like all but a couple of other Democrats at the time, voted against Judge Barrett’s confirmation.
Traci Lovitt, who met Judge Barrett when they clerked at the Supreme Court in 1998, said Judge Barrett did keep her faith separate.
“She was not one to bring her religion to work,” Ms. Lovitt said. “I think that is a good sign of how she thinks about these things. She has a personal life and her faith, and she has these difficult legal questions she has to deal with.”
Expect Judge Barrett’s seven children to feature prominently in the confirmation hearings, just as they did during the White House announcement of her nomination.
Judge Barrett grew up in New Orleans as one of seven children. Her husband, Jesse, was an only child. They decided they wanted seven children, including two adopted from Haiti.
Those adoptions sparked some of the ugliest criticism of the nomination fight so far. Left-wing activists demanded that the Barretts be investigated for “colonialism” or chided them, with no apparent evidence, for not being sensitive enough to transracial adoptions.
Megan Edwards, Judge Barrett’s sister, said the Barretts chose to adopt from Haiti because the country is close enough to visit to immerse their children in the culture.
News outlets, meanwhile, have invested heavily in coverage of People of Praise, a charismatic Christian organization where Judge Barrett was once listed as a “handmaid.” The Associated Press said that meant she was a high-ranking woman in the community.
The judge’s critics have questioned what role the organization may play in her legal approach.
Ms. Edwards pushed back on those attacks. “I do feel protective. I hear something, and I definitely feel like I want people to know the sister I know and say that is not true,” she told The Washington Times.
Judge Barrett would be the fifth woman to sit on the high court and the first with school-age children.
She drives a minivan to and from her courthouse.
When the parents travel on work trips, they bring one of their children with them and try to work in visits with family, who are spread across the country, to maintain close relationships.
“I honestly don’t know how she does it. Despite her schedule, she has made an effort to — even with her own children — to gift an experience to them,” Ms. Edwards said.
Part of how she does it is discipline. She wakes up at 4:30 every morning to get to a fitness class.