Who is Amy Coney Barrett?

Who is Amy Coney Barrett?
Source: Erin Scott, Reuters
Barrett would be the fourth woman to serve on the highest court in the United States and only the second nominated by a Republican president.

On Saturday, September 26, President Donald Trump officially nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. If confirmed by the Senate, Barrett would replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died of metastatic pancreatic cancer on September 18. Barrett, who has been called a “proven conservative,” is Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee in his first term.

While she is expected to be confirmed by the Republican-led Senate, Barrett’s nomination has already stirred up controversy due to its proximity to the presidential election. All the same, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to give Barrett a confirmation vote this October even though the Senate has yet to pass a second coronavirus stimulus package and looks unlikely to do so this term.

Barrett would be the fourth woman to serve on the highest court in the United States and only the second nominated by a Republican president. Her involvement in a strict Catholic religious sect, People of Praise, has received considerable attention in recent days, but both supporters and critics say her qualifications should be solely evaluated on her brief judicial experience.

The early life of Amy Coney Barrett

Amy Vivian Coney was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1972 to devout Catholic parents, Mike and Linda Coney. Her father considered becoming a Jesuit priest in his youth but decided not to once he met Linda. The two would go on to have seven children.

Barrett grew up in Old Metairie, a city within the New Orleans metropolitan area. She attended St. Mary’s Dominican High School, an all-girls Catholic high school. Following high school, she studied English at Rhodes College, a private liberal arts college in Memphis, Tennessee. She graduated from Rhodes in 1994 with honors.

Following the completion of her undergraduate degree, Barrett studied law at Notre Dame Law School in Notre Dame, Indiana. She completed her law degree in 1997 and spent the next few years as a law clerk, first for Laurence H. Silberman, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and then for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (who died in 2016).

Barrett worked in private practice from 1999 to 2001, then switched to teaching. First, she was an adjunct professor at George Washington University Law School, before returning to her alma mater to serve as a law professor from 2002 to 2017.

In the late 1990s, she met Jesse Barrett, a fellow Notre Dame alumni and, like her, a devout Catholic. They married in 1999 and have lived in South Bend, Indiana with their seven children – five biological, two adopted from Haiti. Jesse served as an assistant US attorney for 14 years before returning to private practice.

US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

On May 8, 2017, Trump nominated Barrett to serve on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which has jurisdiction in much of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Before she was nominated for the circuit court, Barrett had been considered a likely candidate to replace Justice Scalia. The replacement of Scalia had controversially been held up by McConnell until Trump took office, preventing former President Barack Obama from filling the seat.

Barrett’s nomination for the circuit court stirred up its own share of controversy. Her faith became a flashpoint in the discussion when Democratic Senator Diana Feinstein discussed it in a hearing. “The dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein said. “And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.” Specifically, Feinstein was referring to Barrett’s opposition to abortion rights.

The phrase, “The dogma lives loudly within you,” became a rallying cry for Catholics and conservative Christians who saw the questioning as an attack on Barrett’s faith. The phrase adorned T-shirts and other paraphernalia, with many conservatives viewing Feinstein’s comments as the Democrats enforcing a “religious test” for confirmation, which is prohibited by the US Constitution.

In contract to the support Barrett has received on the right, most on the left have been adamantly opposed to her appointment. In the lead up to Barrett’s confirmation, the left-leaning Alliance for Justice Action Campaign advocacy group published “5 reasons you should oppose Amy Coney Barrett.”

The AFJAC argued that Barrett would put her religion ahead of the law and would ignore legal precedent. They also said she opposed “reproductive rights” and was critical of the “Miranda doctrine,” “which requires police to inform those arrested of their rights.” Finally, they warned she believes in “an extreme form of ‘originalism’,” which says the Constitution should be interpreted through 18th-century eyes.

Despite the opposition and lack of any prior judicial experience, Barrett was confirmed to the circuit court on October 31, 2017.

Supreme Court nomination

Even before Trump announced Barrett would be his nominee for the Supreme Court, there was considerable speculation that she would be the choice. As CNN said of her, she is “a proven conservative with a compelling personal story.”

In her brief time on the 7th circuit, she has shown a willingness to support gun rights, side with Trump on immigration and oppose abortion. In fact, her opposition to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that allowed for legal abortion in the US, is considered one of her main selling points to conservatives and a clear overture to his Evangelical Christian base.

Liberal opposition to Barrett serving on the Supreme Court has been just as fervent. In addition to fears that Barrett would help overturn Roe w. Wade, there is an expectation that she would provide the necessary votes to gut the Affordable Care Act and overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the law that legalized same-sex marriage in the US.

In 2017, when Barrett was considered a possible Supreme Court nominee, Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth voiced her disapproval of Barrett based on the latter’s opposition to in vitro fertilization. On October 6, Duckworth, who had two children through IVF, reiterated her stance, saying “I hope my Republican colleagues fully consider the message that a vote for Judge Barret [sic] will send to families like mine.”

People of Praise

Democrats have insisted they do not have a religious objection to Barrett – former Vice President Joe Biden, the current Democratic presidential nominee, is Catholic – but it has become a common talking point among Republicans and conservatives that Barrett will be attacked in the confirmation hearings for her faith.

In fact, Barrett’s participation in People of Praise, a fundamentalist religious sect made up mostly of Catholics, has received considerable attention.

On October 6, both The Guardian and The Washington Post published reports on Barrett’s time with the group, including a period in law school when she and her future husband lived with the group’s co-founder, Kevin Ranaghan.

As The Guardian reports, “The group has been criticized by some former members for adhering to a strict authoritarian structure, including the expectation that women are subordinate to their husbands, who are considered their ‘heads’.” Members of the group are expected to provide financial and material support for each other, in addition to spiritual support.

Both Barrett and her husband’s families have long connections with People of Praise which, in addition to its adherence to strict gender roles and hierarchies, opposes same-sex marriage while supporting “traditional” heterosexual marriage. The members also “speak in tongues,” a tenet of Evangelical or “Charismatic” Christianity.

One of the more controversial aspects of People of Praise is the “handmaid” (now known as “woman leader”), a woman whose leadership duties involve guiding the other women. The Washington Post reports Barrett was once a “handmaid” in the group.

The terminology of “handmaid” has raised concerns partly due to its relation to the Margaret Atwood novel (and subsequent HBO series) “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In that dystopian novel, the US has been taken over by a religious-based totalitarian government. Women are subject to men and the few remaining fertile women, known as “Handmaids,” are forced to breed.

Though it has been rumored that People of Praise inspired Atwood, there is no evidence for a direct connection. The role of the “handmaid” is a Biblical concept adopted by multiple Christian sects. The People of Praise use of the word is a reference to Jesus’ mother, Mary, who is referred to as “the handmaid of the Lord” in the Gospel of Luke.

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