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'Baptism by fire' for newly appointed Amy Coney Barrett

Amy Coney Barrett faces ‘baptism of fire’ as she joins Supreme Court today – including voting rights, Obamacare, Catholic bans on gay couples adopting and possibly the election result itself

  • Amy Coney Barrett takes her seat on the Supreme Court Tuesday and already faces a monumental series of decisions 
  • Lawsuits over voting are piling up and late Monday night the court voted 5-3 to restrict counting of late-arriving ballots in Wisconsin
  • Next week she court will hear a case on whether Philadelphia can ban a Catholic group which bans gay adoption from being part of its foster-care program 
  • Then the court hears a case which could strike down the Affordable Care Act in in its entirety
  • And the election result itself may be on the court docket in weeks to come
  • Trump celebrated her 52-48 confirmation vote in the Senate with a White House ceremonial swearing-in conducted by Clarence Thomas

Newly confirmed conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett faces a barrage of politically fraught cases in her first days on the job, as the court weighs election disputes and prepares to hear a challenge to the Obamacare health law.

The Republican-controlled Senate on Monday pushed through the confirmation over Democrats’ objections to an appointment so close to the November 3 presidential election. President Donald Trump, who nominated Barrett, has said he expects the court to ultimately decide the result of the election between him and Democrat Joe Biden.

Barrett, 48, who will be formally sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday, joins the court with two election issues already awaiting her from key battleground states North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

The court would be expected to act on both before Election Day, with Barrett, previously an appeals court judge and legal scholar as part of the court’s new 6-3 conservative majority. 

No Supreme Court justice had ever been confirmed so close to a presidential election.

Justice Coney Barrett: Donald Trump celebrated his third appointment to the Supreme Court at the White House Monday; she faces a ‘baptism of fire’

Moment of history: Amy Coney Barrett, her hand on a Bible held by her husband Jesse, is sworn in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by Clarence Thomas, its longest-serving justice

Lit up in celebration: The White House was draped in giant flags for the swearing-in of Amy Coney Barrett (left) by Clarence Thomas (right)

First words as a Justice: Amy Coney Barrett takes the oath of office as Donald Trump savors the confirmation of the third justice of his presidency

Families together – and unmasked: Donald and Melania Trump posed with Amy Coney Barrett and Jesse Barrett on the Blue Room balcony of the White House after she was sworn in as the ninth Supreme Court justice

‘I cannot think of any other situation like this,’ said Rick Hasen, an expert on election law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. ‘It really is a potential baptism by fire.’

One week after the election, the court on Nov. 10 hears a case in which Republicans including Trump are asking the court to strike down the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

During Barrett’s Senate confirmation hearing two weeks ago, Democrats focused on both Obamacare and election cases in voicing opposition to her confirmation and urged her to step aside from both. Barrett refused to make such a commitment. Justices have the final say on whether they step aside in a case.

At a White House ceremony on Monday night where conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas administered to her one of the two oaths of office that justices must take, Barrett pledged her independence from politics.

‘This separation of duty from political preference is what makes the judiciary distinct,’ she said.

The political pressures put Barrett in a difficult position and she may tread carefully, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

‘She could be on the court for four decades. I don´t think she wants her first big ruling to be raising a question about her independence,’ Levinson added.

Trump has said he wanted Barrett to be confirmed before Election Day so she could cast a decisive vote in any election-related dispute, potentially in his favor.

The Supreme Court has only once decided the outcome of a U.S. presidential election – the disputed 2000 contest ultimately awarded to Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore.

The justices already have tackled multiple election-related emergency requests this year, some related to rules changes prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday night, the conservative justices were in the majority as the court on a 5-3 vote declined to extend mail-in voting deadlines sought by Democrats in Wisconsin.

Last week, in a stark sign of how Barrett’s appointment could affect such cases, the court split 4-4 in a case from Pennsylvania, handing a loss to Republicans hoping to curb the counting of mail-in ballots received after Election Day.

Republicans on Friday asked the court to block the mail-in ballot counting in Pennsylvania, knowing that Barrett was about to be confirmed.

The conservative majority even before Barrett’s appointment has generally sided with state officials who oppose court-imposed changes to election procedures to make it easier to vote during the pandemic.

The Obamacare case is the third major Republican-backed challenge to the law, which has helped roughly 20 million Americans obtain medical insurance. It also bars insurers from refusing to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Republican opponents have called the law an unwarranted intervention by government in health insurance markets.

The Supreme Court previously upheld Obamacare 5-4 in a 2012 ruling. It rejected another challenge by 6-3 in 2015.

Barrett in the past criticized those two rulings. Democrats opposing her nomination emphasized that she might vote to strike down Obamacare, although legal experts think the court is unlikely to do so.

The court hears another major case on Nov. 4 concerning the scope of religious-rights exemptions to certain federal laws. 

The dispute arose from Philadelphia’s decision to bar a local Roman Catholic entity from participating in the city’s foster-care program because the organization prohibits same-sex couples from serving as foster parents.

The court began its current term on Oct. 5 shorthanded following the death of Barrett’s predecessor, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

If the court is divided 4-4 in any of the cases argued before Barrett was appointed, it could hold a second round of oral arguments so Barrett can participate. 


Amy Coney Barrett is 48, a mother of seven and a brilliant legal mind – and now she is the most divisive Supreme Court Justice in at least a generation and perhaps far longer.

She brings to the Supreme Court a short judicial career, a longer academic one and the hopes of a conservative legal movement that they have a secure 6-3 majority in the high court for now, and a stalwart vote on it for many decades to come.

Coney Barrett’s life story makes her the sixth Catholic on the court, keeps the six-three male-female make-up of the bench, and for the first time ever puts on the court someone who openly identifies with the charismatic wing of modern Christianity.

She is also the only one who did not receive an education at Harvard or Yale, and the only mid-western and southern justice, having been born and brought up in Louisiana and spent the rest of her life in Indiana.

Barrett was brought up in Metairie, Louisiana, as a member of charismatic, conservative, Catholic group  People of Praise and one of seven children.

Her father, Mike Coney, a former oil company lawyer, has been a leading member for decades. Her attorney-husband, Jesse, 46, whom she met while both were students at Notre Dame University, was also raised in the group.

She had studied for her undergraduate degree at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN, and contemplated further study in English literature but instead decided to study law, going to Notre Dame whose law school has built a reputation as predominantly conservative.

Family photo of Amy Coney Barrett, her husband Jesse Barrett, and their seven children Emma; Vivian; Tess; John Peter; Liam; Juliet; and Benjamin. Her large family has been part of her appeal for conservatives. Vivian and John Peter are adopted from Haiti and their youngest son Benjamin has Down Syndrome

Judge Amy Coney Barrett introduced her family at her confirmation hearing including her children (from left, first row) Liam, Vivian, Tess, Juliet, Emma, J.P. and husband Jesse and then siblings (from left, second row) Vivian, Eileen, Michael, Megan and Amanda. Sister Carrie was seated across the aisle 

Amy Coney Barrett is seen in a family photo with siblings and parents. In 2018, Barrett’s father Mike Coney wrote an online biography of himself on his church’s website, saying he joined People of Praise because he and his wife Linda ‘felt a call to live life in a close knit Christian community…one that would help form our children into good Christians and strengthen our marriage and family’

Family photo of Amy Coney Barrett, husband Jesse Barrett, and their seven children. She and her husband Jesse

Described by one professor as the best student he had ever had, she went on to be a clerk for Antonin Scalia, the justice who championed originalism as a judicial philosophy.

She had a brief career in private practice but became a law professor at Notre Dame, and married and had seven children.

The visible manifestation of her conservative Catholic beliefs was part of her appeal to political conservatives.

But it has also focused attention on the tiny group, which has just over 2,000 members and which does not represent mainstream Catholicism. 

People of Praise is headquartered in Notre Dame’s hometown, South Bend, Indiana, and many of its leading members have ties to the university. According to its website, the group has branches in 14 states as well as one in Canada and two in the Caribbean. It runs three Grades 7-through-12 Trinity Schools and one elementary school.

Both— who lives in South Bend — and People of Praise seem to have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide her affiliation. Articles mentioning her were removed from the group’s website shortly before she was to be considered for a seat on the Federal Appeals Court in 2017.

Barrett’s ties to People of Praise only became public when the New York Times broke the story three weeks after her confirmation hearing as an appeals court judge, but before the committee had voted. The committee eventually split along party lines to confirm her. Three Democrats voted with the Republican majority in the vote in the full Senate. 

People of Praise is strongly anti-abortion. It also rejects homosexuality. ‘Both are seen as being accepted by human law, but rejected by divine law,’ the former member explained.

‘Homosexual relationships are taboo, and any LGBTQ inclinations are seen as temptations that must be overcome through prayer. If that fails, the member must lead a life of chastity.’

Even dating is a no-no until a member has ‘prayed through their state in life’ and decided they are ready to ‘marry for the Lord.’ If they have not committed themselves to marriage, they must not date.

Barrett got her law degree at Notre Dame, graduating first in her class in 1997. She’s pictured speaking at Notre Dame’s Law School commencement in 2018 

Barrett and her husband Jesse are members of People of Praise, a small group that teaches that wives have to obey their husbands in everything

The group is probably best known for its doctrine that women must obey their husbands in everything, and its system where all men and single women must report to their mentor — called a ‘head’. Husbands act as the ‘head’ for their wives.

The ‘heads’ have such influence they give direction on who a member should date or even marry, how to raise children, whether to take a new job and where to live. 

Until recently the female leader was known as a ‘handmaid.’ But that title was dropped after the success of the dystopian TV show The Handmaid’s Tale and the negative connotations it brought to the title. 

Author Margaret Atwood, who wrote the original novel, said it was based on a group that has similar views to People of Praise. 

The conservative Catholic beliefs have bled into her public life:  she is a former member of the Notre Dame’s ‘Faculty for Life’ and in 2015 signed a letter to the Catholic Church affirming the ‘teachings of the Church as truth.’

Among those teachings were the ‘value of human life from conception to natural death’ and marriage-family values ‘founded on the indissoluble commitment of a man and a woman’.

She has previously written that Supreme Court precedents are not sacrosanct. Liberals have taken these comments as a threat to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide.

Barrett wrote that she agrees ‘with those who say that a justice’s duty is to the Constitution and that it is thus more legitimate for her to enforce her best understanding of the Constitution rather than a precedent she thinks clearly in conflict with it’.

What she said is the distillation of originalism and raises the possibility that she could tear up precedent if she sees it as out of line with the original constiution.  

That puts her in sync with Scalia and the Republican senators who voted for her and expect her to rule in line with that for decades to come; it puts her violently at odds with those who do not agree, and puts her on track to be a justice whose presence on the bench is going to divide opinion as long as she remains on it.

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