Washington D.C: Judge Amy Coney Barrett, nominated by President Donald Trump to the Supreme Court, is a darling of the US religious right, which values her conservative legal arguments as much as the way this practicing Catholic lives her life.
The 48-year-old former law professor, who has only been a judge since 2017, played up those two attributes Monday as she faced the first day of her Senate confirmation hearings, with six of her seven children in the audience, as well as her husband and other family members.
“Nothing is more important to me and I am very proud to have them behind me,” she said in prepared remarks to the Senate committee, dedicating a brief part of her speech to each of her kids, two of whom were adopted from Haiti and one of whom has Downs Syndrome.
Touching on the different stages of her career, Barrett said she had “worked hard as a lawyer and a professor… but I never let the law define my identity or crowd out the rest of my life.” “A similar principle applies to the role of the courts,” she said, noting that “courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life.” She said that “a judge must apply the law as written, not as the judge wishes it were.”
As a young graduate, Barrett adopted this “textualist,” or “originalist” approach to the interpretation of the Constitution when she clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a deeply conservative mainstay of the bench whose death ahead of the 2016 election sparked a bitter dispute over his successor, with Republicans refusing to consider the nominee of then-president Barack Obama.
The originalist theory is highly esteemed in conservative circles, where the Supreme Court has been criticized for drifting too far from the meaning of the Founding Fathers in the late 18th century, by allowing same-sex marriage and abortion.
After her stint at the Supreme Court, Barrett returned to her alma mater, the respected University of Notre Dame in Indiana, to teach law for 15 years.
It was only in 2017 that she was appointed by Trump to a federal appeals court.
Her Senate confirmation process was a stormy affair, with Democratic veteran senator Dianne Feinstein telling her, “The dogma lives loudly within you.” That statement was used by Barrett’s supporters to accuse Feinstein of intolerance, and only served to boost the judge’s standing among the religious right.
The conservative Judicial Crisis Network went as far as having mugs made with Barrett’s picture printed on them next to Feinstein’s words.
Without losing her composure, Barrett responded that she could make the distinction between her faith and her duties as a judge.
Learning from that experience, Democrats in the Senate were at pains to avoid any criticism of her religious views on Monday.
Barrett, on the other hand, made no attempt to disguise her faith. “I believe in the power of prayer,” she said, thanking all those who prayed for her appointment to the highest court in the land.
Outside of the political arena, her critics accuse her of being an ideologue.
They cite comments she delivered to students at Notre Dame, in which she said that a “legal career is but a means to an end… and that end is building the Kingdom of God,” as well as her anti-abortion stance and her membership in a charismatic Catholic group called “People of Praise.” Critics also say Barrett has taken positions favorable to gun rights and against immigrants, women seeking abortions and against the healthcare law known as Obamacare, which the Republicans are trying to dismantle.
“This nomination is about taking healthcare away from 20 million Americans and eliminating protections for Americans with preexisting conditions. Barrett, who has even opposed ensuring access to contraception, would be a bane to reproductive freedom,” said Daniel Goldberg, director of the progressive legal lobbying group Alliance for Justice.
At the same time, conservatives hail a woman they consider “brilliant” and “impressive.” “I’ll bet there are many young women, like my own two daughters, who marvel at the balance you have achieved,” said Texas Republican John Cornyn at Monday’s hearing, while fans of the judge have even taken to representing her as Superman on the Internet.