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'The Female Scalia': Five Things To Know About Judge Amy Coney Barrett

Victoria Pickering
Two women at a rally for Amy Coney Barrett outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 26.

Louisiana native Judge Amy Coney Barrett is poised to deliver a long-sought, solidified conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court that could set the court’s trajectory for decades.

President Donald Trump nominated Barrett for the seat and she accepted during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden on Saturday. She was, Trump had reportedly said, the name he was saving to replace the iconic Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18 from complications due to metastatic cancer of the pancreas.

Barrett, 48, is currently a judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, appointed to that seat by Trump in 2017.

Here’s what you need to know about the woman set to tip the balance of power on the nation’s highest court.

Prominent conservative Louisianans love her

Barrett’s nomination was immediately praised by leading conservatives and anti-abortion groups in the state.

Attorney General Jeff Landry said Barrett “embodies our state's values and respect for the rule of law,” calling her “a distinguished legal scholar and an exceptional appellate judge.” Barrett “honorably holds religious liberty as one of the most sacred rights enacted by our Founding Fathers,” he said.

The Louisiana Family Forum — a powerful Christian lobbying group — tweeted that it was “excited” and “thrilled that Louisiana values” will be present on the Supreme Court.

Members of Louisiana Right to Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion group, celebrated her nomination.

“We highly respect Judge Barrett, not only for her stellar career as a law professor and judge, but also as a woman of faith and a dedicated mother of seven children, including two adopted children,” said Associate Director Angie Thomas.

The Republican Party of Louisiana tweeted to “#confirmAmy,” Senator Bill Cassidy deemed her “incredibly well-qualified,” Sen. John Kennedy said she is an “impressive jurist,” and Congressman Mike Johnson — who said he’s been a close friend of Bennett’s for 30 years — called her “the perfect pick” and “the female Scalia,” a reference to the late, revered conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

Many expressed local pride in Barrett’s roots — she was raised in Metairie. But what conservatives want, and what they believe they have in Barrett, is a reliable vote on key issues, from the Affordable Care Act to labor law, gun rights, reproductive rights and religious liberty.

As with Trump’s two other appointments to the court, Barrett’s name came pre-approved by leading right-wing legal groups, notably the Federalist Society. Before she was named, Republicans had reportedly already locked down the votes needed to confirm her in the Senate, underlining that what mattered wasn’t exactly who Trump chose, but that politicians were certain that person would be a reliable conservative.

Trump is pushing for Barrett’s speedy confirmation — which would raise the conservative majority on the court from 5-4 to 6-3 — amidst an election already underway because he believes the election results will be decided by the Supreme Court.

“I think this will end up in the Supreme Court,” Trump said last week. “And I think it’s very important that we have nine justices.”

Democrats warn health care coverage is at risk, and reproductive rights groups are sounding the alarm

The Louisiana Democratic Party has so far stayed mum on Barrett’s nomination, though it issued a statement praising Ginsburg as a “warrior for justice” when news broke of her death. But national party leaders argue Barrett’s appointment will endanger the Affordable Care Act.

"It's no mystery about what's happening here. President Trump was trying to throw out the Affordable Care Act. He's been trying to do it for the last four years," Democratic candidate for president Joe Biden said in a speech on Sunday.

"If you have a preexisting medical condition, that benefit will be gone,” House Leader Nancy Pelosi told CNN.

The claims come from an academic paper Barrett wrote in 2017 criticizing a 2012 Supreme Court decision that upheld the law, and also from a case set to be heard before the Supreme Court in which Republicans are seeking to overturn the law.

Landry is among 18 Republican state attorneys general, backed by the Trump administration, set to challenge both the individual mandate and the entire Affordable Care Act in oral arguments on Nov. 10.

Louisiana reproductive rights groups are also warning that Barrett will help conservatives strip away reproductive rights and perhaps overturn Roe v. Wade. Barrett personally opposes abortion, and as a judge on the Seventh Circuit, she has twice voted to uphold abortion restrictions. In one case, she would have upheld a law that bans abortions based on a fetal diagnosis or for reasons of sex or race, as well as a law the required the burial of fetal remains (the latter was later upheld by the Supreme Court). In a second, she argued to allow a law to take effect which required parental notification of a minor's abortion, without the option to choose to have a judge grant the abortion. 

Conservatives “will stop at nothing to control every branch of government” so they can “control of people’s bodies,” said Michelle Erenberg, the executive director of Lift Louisiana. “Judge Barrett opposes everything that women have fought for over decades, including reproductive rights.”

With Barrett’s nomination, “the future of health care, including access to abortion, is at stake,” said Steffani Bangel, the executive director of the New Orleans Abortion Fund. “We strongly oppose her nomination and any threats to healthcare access for people in our community.”

Her religious background has become a matter of curiosity

Barrett grew up Catholic, one of seven children of Mike and Linda Coney. She graduated from St. Mary’s Dominican High School in 1990. Her father was a lawyer for Shell Oil, a Catholic deacon, and both parents were leaders of a People of Praise chapter in New Orleans beginning in 1987, The Times-Picayune | The Advocate reports, something her father wrote about in a testimonial in 2018.

People of Praise is a small network of religious groups, founded in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, home to the Notre Dame School of Law, where Barrett taught law before being named to the federal judiciary. Its website describes a close-knit community where members “share their lives,” meals and holidays, and swear a covenant to love and serve one another.

The group blends Pentecostal beliefs, such as divine healings and speaking in tongues, with Catholicism and other Christian traditions. It has drawn interest and criticism for alleged patriarchal views and for alleged excessive power exercised by leaders over group members. A 2017 New York Times report found multiple references to Barrett in the group’s online newsletter, Vine & Branches, but neither Barrett nor People of Praise have confirmed her — or her husband’s — alleged continued membership in the group.

Despite “Notorious A.C.B” swag, Barrett is the legal opposite of Ginsburg

Trump and the GOP have framed Barrett as a kind of feminist successor to Ginsburg. The Republican Party is selling “Notorious A.C.B” swag, a riff on the “Notorious RBG” moniker Ginsburg earned in her later years on the court for a series of blistering dissents from rulings handed down by her conservative colleagues. The nickname was particularly tied to the swath of young women fans who view her as a feminist hero.

Both Ginsburg and Barrett are women; they have families, reportedly supportive spouses, and impressive legal careers.

But that’s about where the similarities end.

Ginsburg forged a career when women were ostracized in the legal profession and pioneered gender equality litigation, winning a series of pivotal Supreme Court cases establishing Constitutional protections on the basis of sex. She was the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project. Her legal record is decidedly on the left. She voted to uphold abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act, and dissented in Supreme Court decisions to gut the Voting Rights Act, diminish abortion rights, and uphold gender pay discrimination.

Barrett has described herself not as a successor to Ginsburg, but as an acolyte of Scalia — Ginsburg’s ideological opposite — for whom Barrett clerked in the late 1990s.

“His judicial philosophy is mine, too,” she said during the Rose Garden ceremony.

Her time as a clerk and a professor at Notre Dame has earned herpraise from students and colleagues. She is also a former member of the Federalist Society, which she said during her 2017 confirmation process gave her “the opportunity to speak to groups of interested, engaged students on topics of mutual interest.”

In addition to her abortion record, she has voted to widen gun rights, criticized university sexual assault policy, and sided with a Trump administration policy that sought to deny green cards from immigrants whom the government suspects might rely on public assistance.

Her confirmation could change the structure of the Supreme Court

Democrats view Barrett’s confirmation as hypocritical at best, after Republicans refused to grant a hearing for, or vote on, the nomination of Merrick Garland during Barack Obama’s last year as president. At the time, they argued the upcoming election should be held first.

Not this time.

That has sparked a series of calls for Democrats to add seats to the court — called court-packing — or a limit on the number of years a justice can serve. Currently, justices serve for life, meaning the younger the justice is when appointed (Trump’s picks have all been under 55) the longer their influence is felt. House Democrats are expected to introduce a bill this week limiting Supreme Court terms to 18 years.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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