Rooted in faith, representing a new conservatism: Meet Amy Coney Barrett, Trump's court pick

To Barrett's critics, she represents the antithesis of the progressive values embodied in the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her life spent in a cocoon of like-minded thinking that in many areas runs counter to the views of a majority of Americans

By Elizabeth Dias, Rebecca R. Ruiz and Sharon LaFraniere
Published: Oct 12, 2020

bg_scotus barrett 10 copyJudge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, at the Capitol in Washington, Sept. 29, 2020. As Barrett’s confirmation hearings are set to begin, her background and résumé mark a stark departure from more traditional nominees to the Supreme Court. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

On a winter afternoon in 2018, Judge Amy Coney Barrett rose to speak in Notre Dame Law School’s courtroom and thanked the people gathered there for joining her for her official investiture as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.

In the audience were her parents, in town from her childhood home in New Orleans, and her husband, along with six of their seven children. And there were many friends — from law school, her Supreme Court clerkship and her Catholic parish in South Bend, Indiana.

Also in attendance were a number of prominent conservative legal figures, mentors who had helped make this moment happen. But perhaps the most important was a Notre Dame graduate whose eyes were on the future.

That graduate, Don McGahn, President Donald Trump’s White House counsel, was known for his single-minded focus on remaking the federal judiciary according to his own conservative views. Contacts at his alma mater had lauded Barrett, then a professor, and even before Trump’s inauguration he had envisioned someone like her as a new kind of powerhouse on the Supreme Court — an outsider of unbending conviction on social issues.

“We now affectionately call her Judge Dogma,” McGahn joked when he got up to speak at the ceremony, a reference to a remark by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., at Barrett’s confirmation hearing questioning her ability to separate her religion from the law.

McGahn has since left the White House and was not at the Rose Garden event last month where the president announced his selection of Barrett to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There, Trump presented Barrett to an audience of prominent conservatives including the widow of Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom she had clerked.

Their enthusiastic response was a ratification of McGahn’s conviction, shared by his successor as White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, and the president himself, that selecting Barrett for the court would be an election-year statement to his most loyal supporters, social conservatives and members of the religious right.

“She seems like she was tailor-made for this moment,” said Carrie Severino, president of the Judicial Crisis Network, a lobby on behalf of conservative judicial nominees.

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s two previous nominees, had the kind of background traditional for Supreme Court nominees of both parties, featuring Ivy League schools and government jobs on their resumes as well as establishment religious beliefs. Barrett embodies a different kind of conservatism.

Barrett is from the South and Midwest. Her career has been largely spent teaching while raising seven children, including two adopted from Haiti and one with Down syndrome, and living according to her faith. She has made no secret of her beliefs on divisive social issues such as abortion. A deeply religious woman, her roots are in a populist movement of charismatic Catholicism.

From her formative years in Louisiana to her current life in Indiana, Barrett has been shaped by an especially insular religious community, the People of Praise, which has about 1,650 adult members, including her parents, and draws on the ecstatic traditions of charismatic Christianity, like speaking in tongues. The group has a strict view of human sexuality that embraces once-traditional gender roles, such as recognizing the husband as the head of the family. The Barretts, however, describe their marriage as a partnership.

Some former members of the group say it could be overly intrusive. Other members, like Barrett, appear to have treasured their connection to it. But she does not appear to have spoken publicly about the group, and she did not list her membership in the People of Praise when she filled out a form for the Senate Judiciary Committee that asked for organizations she belonged to.

Around the time of her appeals court confirmation, several issues of the group’s magazine, “Vine & Branches,” that mentioned her or her family were removed from the People of Praise website.

Family members have also declined to comment on her participation.

To Barrett’s critics, she represents the antithesis of the progressive values embodied in Ginsburg, her life spent in a cocoon of like-minded thinking that in many areas runs counter to the views of a majority of Americans.

She has made clear she believes that life begins at conception, and has served in leadership roles for People of Praise. Her judicial opinions indicate broad support for gun rights and an expanded role for religion in public life.

“Amy Coney Barrett is everything the current incarnation of the conservative legal movement has been working for — someone whose record, and the litmus tests of the president nominating her, suggest will overturn Roe, strike down the ACA, bend the law toward big business interests and make it harder to vote,” Elizabeth B. Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, said, referring to the Affordable Care Act.

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings on Barrett’s nomination Monday, and if she is confirmed, as seems all but certain, she could have an effect as early as next month, when the court will hear cases on the Affordable Care Act and a clash between claims of religious freedom and gay rights.

Barrett’s six siblings will be present for her hearing on Monday. But even as the Barretts’ large extended family holds Barrett and her husband, Jesse Barrett, in high personal regard, family members have a wide range of religious and political views reflective of the country’s, and tension over her nomination is present. One member of Jesse Barrett’s family who opposes her confirmation said her acceptance of Trump’s nomination in this politically fraught moment reflected her allegiance and her husband’s to an ultraconservative project.

“Probably what is most important to them is their vision of how the world should work, and their vision of how to get it there,” said the family member, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive family issues.

For Amy Coney Barrett, 48, that vision comes from a deep sense of calling, one rooted in family and faith.

Rooted in Religion

The day before Michael Coney’s 17th birthday, he came home from a summer job and found his mother had died. Devastated, he turned to his Catholic faith. He studied law and married a high school French teacher, Linda Vath. When their first child was born in 1972, they named her Amy Vivian, her middle name after his mother.

A new spiritual movement was spreading through the Catholic Church in New Orleans at the time, led by a Jesuit priest who was the chaplain at Loyola University, where Coney was studying law. The Rev. Harold Cohen preached a baptism in the Holy Spirit, part of a growing global movement of charismatic Christian worship practices. Coney, a lawyer for Shell Oil, later described having a spiritual awakening, and he was ordained a deacon in the Catholic Church.

Seeking to emulate the close-knit community of the Twelve Apostles, Coney and his wife, who had six girls and a boy after Amy, joined People of Praise, based in South Bend, and were a grounding force for the group’s New Orleans community.

The group became an organizing principle of their lives. Families promised to intimately share their lives, from the spiritual to the financial, and often bought homes near one another. Coney was later elected to two six-year terms on the national board of governors.

Amy attended high school at St. Mary’s Dominican, an all-girls Catholic school, and then Rhodes College, a liberal arts college in Memphis, Tennessee, with about 1,400 students and roots in the Presbyterian Church.

bg_scotus barrett 1 copyA photograph of Judge Amy Coney Barrett hangs in Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., Sept. 17, 2020. As Barrett’s confirmation hearings are set to begin, her background and résumé mark a stark departure from more traditional nominees to the Supreme Court. (Andrea Morales/The New York Times)

She belonged to the Catholic students association, but her activities ranged far beyond that: She joined everything from a mock trial group to the English Society and was an orientation leader and resident adviser.

“The impression she gave was of, not an unearned confidence, just that she had a kind of maturity, a kind of poise,” recalled Jennifer Brady, a former Rhodes professor who taught Barrett in several classes.

When Barrett applied to law schools, Brady said faculty members “spent hours” arguing for her to consider Harvard University over Notre Dame. Friends said Barrett later told them that Notre Dame had offered her a scholarship.

Later, she mentioned other reasons. “I’m a Catholic, and I always grew up loving Notre Dame,” Barrett said in 2019.

The school was a good fit for Barrett, according to Geoffrey Cockrell, a law school classmate and friend. “She’s obviously very Catholic and was always, like most of us, trying to figure out the intersection of your faith with this career,” he said.

After a course on constitutional criminal procedure, Barrett discovered a legal approach that resonated: originalism, or the practice of interpreting the Constitution according to what it meant when it was adopted.

“I wasn’t familiar when I entered law school with originalism as a theory,” she said last year in a speech at Hillsdale, a Christian college in Michigan. “But I found myself as I read more and more cases becoming more and more convinced that the opinions that I read that took the originalist approach were right.”

She graduated at the top of her class and received an award for the highest academic achievement.

As Amy was standing out at Notre Dame, Republican leaders were looking to cultivate female and minority candidates for the courts. Two conservative professors in particular wanted to help Barrett advance: Patrick J. Schiltz, now a federal judge, and William Kelley, a former aide to President George W. Bush who had extensive Republican political and legal connections. Both had been Scalia clerks.

They helped open the first door: a clerkship with Judge Laurence H. Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Silberman, a Reagan appointee, went on to recommend her to his friend Scalia.

At the Supreme Court, Barrett bonded with one of Justice Clarence Thomas’ clerks, Nicole Garnett, a fellow Catholic who had gone to Yale University. Members of the broader group of some three-dozen clerks, of conservatives and liberals alike, saw Barrett as a committed “textualist who was working for a textualist” and respected her ability to simplify some of the court’s more complex cases.

When the clerkship ended, Barrett remained in Washington, following Garnett’s husband Richard and another friend, Anthony Bellia, to the boutique law firm Miller Cassidy at a time when it was helping represent Bush in the disputed 2000 election. Barrett conducted research and helped with briefs in that matter, according to information submitted to the Senate.

Notre Dame Law School was building a new, distinctly conservative faculty cohort that the Garnetts and Bellia and his wife soon joined. Kelley helped recruit Barrett.

At Notre Dame, she devoted herself to originalism — a topic with which Scalia was closely associated, and one sure to catch attention from the conservative legal establishment.

She did not seem particularly interested in electoral politics, but she telegraphed her positions on certain policy issues, most notably around abortion. She joined an anti-abortion faculty group.

In 2006, she signed her name to a newspaper ad taken out by a local anti-abortion group against “abortion on demand” and for “the right to life from fertilization to natural death.” A similar ad, with her name included among fellow Notre Dame faculty members, ran in 2013. “We renew our call for the unborn to be protected in law and welcomed in life,” it read.

She signed a letter opposing the Obama administration’s contraception mandate in 2012. And for the 40th anniversary of the Roe decision in 2013, she addressed Notre Dame students about abortion as part of a lecture series, making clear her conviction that life began at conception, according to a campus magazine. But she also said the core right to abortion established in Roe appeared secure, as reported in a student newspaper.

“The fundamental element, that the woman has a right to choose abortion, will probably stand,” she said.

Little-Known in Politics, but Embraced by Politicians

Barrett was in church after Mass in 2016 when she saw the texts pour in: Scalia was dead. It was personal, for more reasons than she could know at the time. For months, Senate Republicans refused hearings not only for President Barack Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, to succeed him, but also for dozens of other federal judicial nominations, including the Indiana seat on the Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.

McGahn, the incoming White House counsel, moved quickly after Trump won the election, prioritizing the effort to shift the courts decisively to the right. Within weeks of the president’s inauguration, he nominated Gorsuch to fill Scalia’s seat, which had been vacant almost a year.

McGahn had heard of Barrett through Notre Dame connections, and he liked her record, according to five people familiar with the nomination process.

At the same time, Mark Paoletta, a lawyer in Vice President Mike Pence’s office who had helped shepherd Gorsuch through his confirmation, set about identifying top prospects for the appeals court in Indiana, Pence’s home state.

Barrett’s name kept coming up, according to Paoletta, who sat in on her interview at the White House with McGahn on March 1, six weeks into the administration.

Indiana at the time was a focal point for the movement to restrict access to abortion, with Pence’s political rise and the enactment of state laws broadening parental consent requirements, barring abortions based on gender or disability and calling for the burial or cremation of fetal remains.

Sen. Todd Young, Indiana’s newly elected Republican senator, had just been sworn in when McGahn called his attention to Barrett.

“He made the initial introduction, indicating that within legal circles — meaning not popular circles — she was very well respected,” Young said. “I asked if she was an originalist, a faithful constitutionalist, and he assured me she was.”

She was confirmed to the appeals court in October 2017 by a vote of 55-43.

Two and a half weeks later, McGahn saw to it that the new judge’s profile would rise higher. In a speech to the Federalist Society, he listed five additions to the president’s public list of favored potential nominees to the nation’s top court. Among them were Barrett and Kavanaugh.

Barrett’s formal investiture in South Bend was still months away.

It would not be long before another vacancy on the Supreme Court — the seat formerly belonging to Justice Anthony Kennedy — opened up. In a sign of the administration’s big aspirations for the new judge, Barrett was mentioned as a runner-up to Kavanaugh.

Trump gave an early signal of what he had in mind just a few months after she joined the appeals court. “I’m saving her for Ginsburg,” he told people, according to Axios.

The race to fill a Supreme Court seat weeks before a presidential election and in the middle of a pandemic has cost her some support. While the Notre Dame law faculty and her former fellow Supreme Court clerks generally supported her for the appeals court, some have said they will not line up behind her this time.

That includes Pat Hackett, the Democratic nominee for Congress in Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District and an adjunct professor of law at Notre Dame who is among the school’s progressive minority.

“My concern is not that Judge Barrett is Catholic,” she said, going on to criticize what she called extreme originalism. “There’s a presumption of correctness or moral propriety,” she said. “There’s an effort to undermine the rich diversity of the American people.”

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