The Real Problem with Amy Coney Barrett

The Real Problem with Amy Coney Barrett September 29, 2020

There are so many discourses surrounding the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court right now that it can be hard to settle on just one to discuss at a time. But I do think it’s time wading through some of them.

First, there’s the fact that Republicans refused to even consider Barack Obama’s nominee to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat in 2016, arguing that “the people” deserved to have a say, and that that meant waiting until after the (still nine months distant) election. Here, one month out from an election, Republicans have completely changed their tune. There are moments like this when it’s hard to access any emotion besides rage.

Next, there’s the fact that Barrett is the member of a covenanted religious community, People of Praise. The best take I’ve seen on this is this article by Massimo Faggioli, who researches groups like this one. Barrett, he writes, made certain vows when she joined People of Praise. The public, he says, has a right to know what these vows are.

The key point is this: The analogy drawn between members of new Catholic communities and other Catholics in public office is false. Amy Coney Barrett is not Catholic like John F. Kennedy was Catholic or Joe Biden or Paul Ryan or the late Antonin Scalia was Catholic. She has made solemn promises that go far beyond the baptismal promises every Catholic makes. Nor is Barrett like Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest who served for many years in the U.S. House of Representatives. His vows of obedience as a Jesuit were open and public.

Third, there’s the counter-narrative—the claim that liberal opposition to Barrett is the result of their anti-Catholicism. This claim is nonsense for quite a few reasons. First, as Faggioli notes, Barrett is not simply Catholic. She’s made vows that differ from those of regular Catholics. Second, the Democratic party is replete with Catholics: its presidential nominee, Joe Biden, is a lifelong Catholic. So too Sonia Sotomayor, who was put on the Supreme Court by Barack Obama. Third, evangelicals are far more anti-Catholic than liberals (many of whom are actually Catholic).

But fourth, Barrett is not actually all that Catholic.

According to Elie Mystal in The Nation:

If Barrett ruled like a devout Catholic all the time, that would be one thing. But she doesn’t. She rules like an extremist conservative all the time, and just uses religion to justify those extremist positions when it is convenient for her to do so. She ignores the moral and ethical underpinnings of her faith when they conflict with the cruel requirements of conservative dogma.

As Mystal continues:

What’s disqualifying is not Barrett’s religious beliefs; it’s her extremist beliefs—beliefs that would often seem to conflict with the moral teachings of almost any religion.

You can see Barrett’s moral hypocrisy all throughout her judicial opinions. No modern church favors deliberate indifference to human life. Amy Coney Barrett does. In 2019, she dissented from a Seventh Circuit opinion that found that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment protected people in prison from correctional officers’ firing “warning shots” into a cafeteria. Barrett callously wrote:,“The guards may have acted with deliberate indifference to inmate safety by firing warning shots into the ceiling of a crowded cafeteria in the wake of the disturbance.… In the context of prison discipline, however, ‘deliberate indifference’ is not enough.”

Moreover, there’s no “Catholic” right to bear arms. If you believe the stories, Jesus famously told his followers to put down their weapons. But Barrett finds no conflict between that teaching and an expansive view of gun rights. She dissented from a 2019 case where the majority ruled that Wisconsin could disarm felons. Barrett found that “virtue-based restrictions” could not be applied to gun rights.

In 2020, again in dissent, Barrett was the lone voice in favor of the Trump administration’s policy of denying entry to immigrants who may in the future require public assistance. She alone thought it was lawful for the Trump administration to apply the “public charge” rule to deny green cards to such people. I am reminded of Jesus’s famous sermon where he says, “Thou shalt turn away any neighbor who may solicit an EBT card to pay for her bread.”

That is Barrett’s record. Her religion is not the source of that record; it is the shield she uses to blind people to the political extremism it contains.

As I wrote yesterday, one of the reasons I converted to Catholicism in college is that I appreciated the Catholic Church’s approach to the poor and the needy. Catholics tend to speak compassionately about the poor while many evangelicals view poverty as a personal failing (after all, if people would just get a job, they wouldn’t be asking for handouts). Catholics are against the death penalty, while the evangelicals I grew up among favor a “tough on crime” approach.

I had a long discussion with a friend this morning about the purpose of the Supreme Court. He argued that a more “textualist” court might throw issues back to the states or the Congress, and thus force these bodies to function better. There’s a problem with that, though, because democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on who to eat for dinner. The Bill of Rights attempts to combat this, but there needs to be a body to enforce this: that’s where the courts come in.

In other words, we need courts that will protect and guarantee people’s civil liberties and rights. We can’t rely on legislatures to do this, because—again—democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on who to eat for dinner. We need judges on the Court who are defenders of the civil liberties, not judges who defend the authoritarian impulses of law enforcement.

I’ll be honest—I don’t think the Left is at all as hung up on Barrett’s religious views as the Right claims. In fact, I suspect there are more articles on the Right decrying the Left’s focus on Barrett’s religion than there are articles on the Left that focus on Barrett’s religion. It’s not her religion that matters. It’s her jurisprudence.

Finally, I’m afraid I can’t see past the fact that the Republicans stole the seat that should have belonged to Merrick Garland. I don’t care what Barrett’s record is, I don’t think Trump should be allowed to name a third person to the Supreme Court.

But then, we now live under minority rule.

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