On Monday, the Senate confirmed Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States. By that evening, she took the oath of office, becoming the fifth woman to ever serve as a justice on the nation’s highest court.
In a ceremony eerily reminiscent of the super-spreader event that celebrated President Trump’s initial nomination, Justice Clarence Thomas presided over Barrett’s swearing-in from the White House Rose Garden. A jubilant President Trump witnessed the oath. With only a week remaining before the general election, Republicans in the Senate successfully defied their own party’s standard to fill the vacant seat, tilting the ideological scales of the Supreme Court toward a conservative majority.
For the first time in 151 years, the Senate confirmed a Supreme Court justice without a single vote from the minority party. Barrett received the chamber’s approval in a 52-48 vote, with dissent from every Democratic Senator, as well as one Republican—Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. The party-line vote is a sign not just of how polarized Washington has become in the Trump era, but also of the heated nature of Barrett’s entire confirmation.
Back in 2016, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell prevented then-President Barack Obama from appointing a justice to the Court. The vacancy occurred in February of an election year upon the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. At the time, McConnell said that a Supreme Court appointment ought not take place in an election year. And that the American people should have a say at the ballot box in November.
But McConnell nixed the standard this September when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, leaving an open seat on the Court not two months before Election Day. Republicans have since made Barrett’s confirmation their number-one priority, even putting coronavirus relief on the back burner in order to get a conservative judge on the Court prior to the election.
Despite attempts by Democrats to stall the vote – including a boycott of committee proceedings, and attempts to filibuster and even disband the Senate – Republicans had the votes. Still, Democratic efforts have focused less on disparaging Barrett herself, and more on the stakes of her appointment, and the hypocrisy of the Republican party. Democratic leaders now hope that the American public will punish the GOP in the November 3rd election.
Rose Garden Sequel?
Following the Senate’s vote to confirm Barrett, President Trump hosted a celebratory reception at the White House Rose Garden, which oddly mirrored the announcement of Barrett’s nomination just five weeks ago. At that event, dozens of Trump’s allies sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the garden, without wearing masks. Soon after, President Trump and multiple members of his circle tested positive for COVID-19, leading many experts to dub it a “super-spreader” event.
On Monday night, patriotic music played as Trump escorted the new justice to the Truman balcony, waving in triumph at the crowd. However, this time more attendees wore masks, though not the President, who claims to be immune to the virus since recovering.
What’s at stake on the Court?
Barrett now joins the Supreme Court just as it tees-up for a slew of hot-button cases. But the near-term is not at the core of the issue. With a 6-3 conservative majority, the Supreme Court is now set for decades of decisions that run counter to the direction the US has been moving. Will that direction be stopped or reversed?
President Trump’s legacy is cemented by Justice Barrett presence on the court. But he is focused on the short term. He has already warned that the results of the election could end up before the Court, implying that the sixth seat on the court assures the decisions on those cases will go his way. For her part, Barrett has refused the recuse herself while such cases remain hypothetical. But what is not hypothetical are cases regarding the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s immigration policy, rights for same-sex couples and the United States census. Barrett, who claims to follow the originalist legal philosophy of her late mentor Justice Antonin Scalia, could be key to dealing conservative verdicts in such cases.
Still, the former Notre Dame law professor insists that her job as a judge is to resist personal political beliefs or allegiances to elected officials. Instead, she says, she must be faithful only to the Constitution, and will rule fairly in accordance.
“It is the job of a judge to resist her policy preferences,” Barrett said after thanking the President and Republican leadership. “It would be a dereliction of duty for her to give into them. A judge declares independence not only from Congress and the president, but also from the private beliefs that might otherwise move her.”
It remains to be seen whether it plays out that way.