They pulled out photos of Hillary Clinton, FBI Director James Comey, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, the late liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall and public figures such as Oprah Winfrey, and invoked a conservative classical thinker like William James. When senators stepped in the witness hearing room, Brett Kavanaugh’s future mother-in-law, Ashley Estes Kavanaugh, looked on.
Despite the fitful campaigns against her, Sen. Amy Coney Barrett has a clear and confident presence. “Because I’m asking about my own views, and what I believe, I think I’m refreshingly rational,” she told Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) when he asked her to defend her opposition to abortion.
Here’s what we learned about Barrett, the 51-year-old nominee to the high court.
Quick and sharp questioner
Her recent pedigree as a priest has stirred questions among liberals about her views on abortion. “I do think abortion is something the government has no role in permitting,” she said, and she wouldn’t have made a different choice on Roe vs. Wade if she had been a young woman in 1975.
She is quick to point out that her opposition to abortion stems from her Catholic beliefs, and she supports the right of a woman to make that decision in a way that respects her conscience.
She speaks frequently about faith, and that has helped her to build relationships with Democrats. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that during the hearing, he thought that Barrett spoke to her own politics more honestly than she could have about religion.
Like a good lawyer, she pointed out that “there’s no dogma that comes before a call to justice.”
A conservative-sounding recitation of conservative thought
When senators were talking about Don Imus’ apology for calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team the “Nappy-headed Wompus,” Barrett noted that the “many innocent and decent” of the high school basketball team had similar reactions, and explained that some of their words had been worded in a way that she found offensive. “What I would like to ask is if some time that people spend worrying about what others think of them or hurt their feelings, that might go a little bit farther?” she asked.
From the debate to the Supreme Court
On Monday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee completed its confirmation hearing on Kavanaugh, Barrett was on a bus headed to Washington for the official swearing-in and ceremony at the Supreme Court. She texted with her parents, from California, and told reporters in the Capitol that it was an exciting time, and that she’d speak in front of a Supreme Court clerk.
Judges must hear “the case, not the man,” she told the committee, but her experience as a Roman Catholic priest and mother has given her insight into that “hard case” — Kavanaugh’s years of judicial rulings on abortion and reproductive rights.
One of her speeches: “Pushing back is a sign of strength and courage. Even though I may be a woman and even a Catholic, to push back is not to victimize” others.
When asked how she would rule on Roe vs. Wade, she cited the Supreme Court precedent that says women have a constitutional right to a safe and legal abortion. But she also said, “Justice Kennedy made a very clear distinction that what we view as a choice has to be made by the individual, not the government.”
A series of thoughtful answers and a strong command of complex legal questions
The committee worked hard to distinguish the judge’s faith from her views on legal issues, but it struggled to try to distinguish her comments, including her policy positions, from the deeply personal answers she gave in court. But Barrett kept giving both kinds of answers, challenging questions about abortion but also pointing out how the current court has had trouble understanding religion.
Among the questions Barrett picked up on: “How does your Catholic faith shape your approach to judging?” And “How do you plan to apply your Catholic faith to your role as a judge on the Supreme Court?”
“I am completely aware that the judicial role is something different from the church role,” she said, in some of the most thoughtful responses.