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Paul Vallely: Don’t focus on Barrett’s Catholicism

02 October 2020

It is the judge’s politics that should be scrutinised, says Paul Vallely


Amy Coney Barrett, who has been nominated to the Supreme Court, at Capitol Hill, Washington, on Wednesday

Amy Coney Barrett, who has been nominated to the Supreme Court, at Capitol Hill, Washington, on Wednesday

EVEN before President Trump officially nominated Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacant seat on the US Supreme Court, attacks were launched on her because of her religion. She was a member, critics said, of a small Charismatic Renewal group known as People of Praise, which taught that husbands have authority over their wives.

Even more sinister, the group called women “handmaidens” — the term used by Margaret Atwood in her novel about a theocratic and patriarchal dystopia that subjects fertile women to sexual slavery. People of Praise dropped the term after the enormous popularity of the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale warned of a horrifying future if fundamentalist Christianity ever takes over the United States.

There is a good dose of anti-Catholic smear in all this. Amy Barrett’s long career as a legal academic and appeal-court judge suggests that she can’t be all that oppressed by a husband.

Considering her track record on the law is more illuminating. Her judicial philosophy is as an originalist and textualist — which means that she roots her legal judgments in a literal reading of the text of the US Constitution, viewed in the context of the time when it was written.

All this is highly problematic in light of the fact that the founding fathers who drafted the Constitution were, as men of their time, mostly slave-owners who had very little to say on abortion rights, gay marriage, and school desegregation — let alone video games, mobile phones, jet engines, and nuclear missiles — and other phenomena that shape the modern US.

Early on in her academic career, Professor Barrett suggested that Catholic judges might need to stand aside from cases involving issues such as capital punishment, on which Catholic teaching contradicts much American political practice. But, by 2006, she was telling graduating law students “your legal career is but a means to an end . . . and that end is building the Kingdom of God.” In 2017, when she was being questioned by Senators before her appointment as an appeal judge, she made it clear that she no longer thought that it was necessary to stand aside from legal decisions on religious grounds.

On the bench, she has taken a strong line on abortion. She has argued that the law should require doctors to notify the parents of a minor seeking a termination. She has issued a minority ruling insisting that it ought not to be illegal for states to ban abortions that are sought for reasons related to sex, race, or disability — including life-threatening conditions. She has spoken against the Affordable Care Act and said that it is illegal to ban former criminals from buying guns.

In 2016, when President Obama nominated a candidate to the Supreme Court during an election year, she declared that the appointment should wait until after the election, because an immediate replacement would “dramatically flip the balance of power”. In 2020, nominated to replace the US’s most liberal judge, she seems happy to accept the complete reversal of her own advice.

Perhaps the American electorate are right to be concerned about the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the highest court in their land. But they should focus that concern not on her faith, but on her politics and her jurisprudence.

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