WASHINGTON — Knives are being sharpened and armies of Democratic operatives have saddled up to try and ride Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett out of town.
That’s OK. She’s been through the gantlet before and is up to the fight. It is easy to underestimate her, as her colleagues will attest. Her demure appearance and sweet voice belie an intellectual ferocity. When she was a clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia, her nickname was “Conenator,” a play on her middle name and the Terminator, for her ability to destroy opponents with her legal acumen and impenetrable logic.
A Notre Dame law professor before she joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 2017, she’s also a mother to seven children, including one with special needs and two adopted from Haiti. Yes, she’s certainly pro-life.
She’s also a Catholic, a near-apocalyptic thought to liberals fearful that a majority conservative court will overturn Roe v. Wade. If confirmed, Barrett would be the court’s sixth practicing Catholic; another justice, Neil Gorsuch, who was raised as a Roman Catholic, attending the same Jesuit high school as Justice Brett Kavanaugh, worships as an Episcopalian.
Worse, at least in the eyes of secularists, Barrett has been a member of a small charismatic community in Indiana called People of Praise, a diverse group of Protestants and Catholics.
Conservatives argue that objections to Barrett are a form of anti-Catholic bias; liberals say they are just trying to learn where a judicial nominee’s faith might override his or her understanding of the law. When Barrett went through her previous confirmation in 2017 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., invoked her inner Yoda and put it this way: “The dogma lives loudly within you and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country.”
I am tempted to joke that Feinstein was envisioning a Supreme Court justice who might at any moment lapse into glossolalia — a word that should be used whenever possible and means speaking in tongues. But we all know she was talking about abortion. It’s always about abortion.
Whatever Barrett’s personal feelings about terminating unborn life, one of her colleagues tells me she would never compromise her jurisprudence. O. Carter Snead, a University of Notre Dame law professor and one of the world’s leading authorities on public bioethics, said, “She’s the most disciplined person I know in terms of bracketing her own views and opinions as a judge. It’s a core principle of her own integrity.”
More generally, the main objection to her religious affiliation seems to be that women leaders in the People of Praise community, who serve as mentors to younger women, were until recently referred to as “handmaids.”
And with that, please cue the collective gasps of those whose understanding of the term comes from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The book has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during President Donald Trump’s reign of error, in part because of his crudely dismissive remarks about women. I doubt someone like Barrett ever considered herself a “handmaid” to anyone. Language, like everything else, has changed over the past few thousand years or so, which is why the People of Praise dropped the term.
Meanwhile, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s religion was central to her approach to the law, as she explained in an address to the American Jewish Committee in 1995, a couple of years after her appointment to the court: “I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew,” she said. “The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition.”
With all the conversation about what the late justice wanted — her dying wish reportedly was that her replacement not be installed until after the next president is sworn in — it’s impossible to think she’d object to a sharp mind like Barrett’s joining the bench.
They surely would have disagreed on any number of issues — and probably become friends. Both the late justice and her likely replacement benefited from being easy to underestimate.