Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Potential Impact on the Supreme Court – President Biden’s Reaction
Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed by the Senate to fill the Supreme Court seat left open by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death by a vote of 52 to 48 on October 26, 2020. Justice Barrett was sworn in on October 27. Her confirmation was the first in 150 years to not include any votes from the party in the minority, in this case the Democrats, highlighting the polarized response to her candidacy as a Supreme Court Justice.
Justice Barrett served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit after being confirmed in 2017. In addition to her position with the Seventh Circuit, Justice Barrett also served as a professor of law at her alma mater, Notre Dame Law School – a position she held since 2002 and up to her confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
The Supreme Court is already hearing oral arguments in key cases concerning healthcare and anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom, Justice Barrett’s background and previous rulings shed some light on how she could eventually rule on the Supreme Court.
How Justice Barrett’s Confirmation Could Impact the Politics of the Court
The confirmation of Justice Barrett to the Supreme Court tipped the political leanings of the Court further to the right, with Republican appointees outnumbering Democratic ones by a 6-to-3-margin.
Justice Barrett clerked for late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia from 1998 to 1999. Like Justice Scalia, she aligns herself with the legal philosophy of originalism – the idea that the Constitution should be given the original meaning it would have had at the time it became law. During her confirmation hearings, she answered a question from Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Lindsey Graham about her views on originalism, saying:
“I interpret the Constitution as a law, and that I interpret its text as text, and I understand it to have the meaning that it had at the time people ratified it. So that meaning doesn't change over time and it's not up to me to update it or infuse my own policy views into it."
Even though Justice Scalia was a mentor to Justice Barrett, she asserted in her confirmation hearings that with her confirmation Americans “would not be getting Justice Scalia, you would be getting Justice Barrett.” She also stressed that sometimes originalists don’t agree.
During her time as a Judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Justice Barrett voted conservatively over 80 percent of the time compared to other judges on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, according to a study done by University of Virginia law professors Joshua Fischman and Kevin Cope cited by FiveThirtyEight that analyzed over 1,700 cases that were heard after her confirmation, including 378 that included rulings from Justice Barrett. Specifically, Justice Barrett voted conservatively 83.8 percent of the time in discrimination and labor cases, 87.9 percent conservative in criminal and habeas corpus cases and 83.2 percent conversative in civil rights cases.
However, Fischman told FiveThirtyEight that Justice Barrett is statistically indistinguishable from other conservative judges appointed by President Trump. Additionally, during her time as a judge on the Seventh Circuit, she didn’t always rule in line with other conservative judges, and ruled in a liberal direction 20 percent of the time when a Democratic nominee was on the panel, and 9 percent of the time when a fellow Republican nominee was on the panel, according to the study.
“This is an attempt to establish a very strong Republican, conservative presence on the federal judiciary,” said Mark Graber, Maryland Carey Law professor and constitutional scholar on Justice Barrett’s confirmation in an interview with the National Law Review.
“That’s the great and terrible truth about this nomination: Judge Barrett holds far-right views well outside the American mainstream,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in response to Justice Barrett’s nomination. Specifically, Schumer highlighted Justice Barrett’s past criticism about previous rulings on the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
“We’re talking about the rights and freedoms of the American people. Their right to affordable health care. To make private medical decisions with their doctors … Judge Amy Coney Barrett will decide whether all those rights will be sustained or curtailed for generations,” Schumer said. “And based on her views on the issues—not her qualifications but her views on the issues—Judge Barrett puts every single one of those fundamental American rights at risk.”
While many on the left have expressed fears about a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, O. Carter Snead, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame and one of Justice Barrett’s former colleagues for over 15 years, wrote that Democrats have “nothing to fear” from her in an op-ed published in the Washington Post.
“There is of course no way to know in advance how a Justice Barrett would rule on hot-button cases. What is clear is that she would carefully analyze each case on its merits, respectful of the stakes for both the rule of law and the stability of our polity, doing her level best to get the question right, regardless of her own personal views,” he said.
What Her Confirmation Could Mean for the ACA
When it comes to healthcare, Justice Barrett has been critical of past Supreme Court decisions on the ACA, writing in a 2017 article published by Notre Dame Law School that Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinions in previous ACA cases NFIB v. Sebelius and King v. Burwell “pushed the Affordable Care Act beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute.”
Additionally, Justice Barrett said in an interview with NPR that the dissent had the better legal argument in King v. Burwell. However, Justice Barrett maintained in her confirmation hearing that she was not determined to overturn the ACA.
"I'm not here on a mission to destroy the Affordable Care Act," she said.
Specifically, Justice Barrett seemed to suggest in her confirmation hearing that the ACA could survive without the individual mandate because of severability, or that there is a presumption on the Court’s part under judicial tradition to save an underlying law if part of it is struck down.
"The presumption is always in favor of severability," Justice Barrett said in her hearing.
Supreme Court Oral Arguments in California v. Texas
On November 10, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in California v. Texas, a case considering if Congress’ 2017 decision to reduce the penalty for the ACA’s individual mandate renders the law unconstitutional. The Court also considered if the challengers to the law have the legal right to sue.
During the arguments, Justice Barrett didn’t indicate whether she thought the ACA should stand, but did express misgivings about whether the penalty could be reduced to zero and still be considered a tax.
“Why can’t we say that when Congress zeroed out the tax, it was no longer a tax because it generated no revenue and, therefore, it could no longer be justified as a taxing power?” she asked.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice Roberts argued that Congress’ 2017 decision to reduce the penalty for not purchasing health insurance did not indicate the desire to throw out the law in its entirety.
“I think it’s hard for you to argue that Congress intended the entire act to fall. The same Congress that lowered the penalty to zero did not even try to repeal the rest of the act,” Chief Justice Roberts said. “I think, frankly, that they wanted the court to do that. But that’s not our job.”
“It does seem fairly clear that the proper remedy would be to sever the mandate provision and leave the rest of the act in place,” Justice Kavanaugh said.
A decision is expected on California v. Texas in 2021.
What Could Come Next
In the weeks following Justice Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, much of the political response to the confirmation has revolved around the possibility of adding more justices to the Supreme Court to remedy its shift rightward, and to dampen fears that the Court could undermine the incoming Biden Administration by legislating from the bench.
“The Court might be a little more conservative or the Court might be a little more liberal, but it turns out, through most of American history, the court is about as close to public opinion to the other branches as anything else,” Professor Graber said. “What I think people are worried about is [that] it shouldn't be the mission of the Roberts Court to, in some sense, undermine the fundamental initiatives of a Biden administration.”
While the Constitution allows Congress to add and take away judges from the Supreme Court, it has not done so since 1869. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported adding more justices to the Supreme Court, but that proved to be unsuccessful.
President Joe Biden responded to Justice Barrett’s confirmation by stating he would assemble a commission of bipartisan constitutional scholars to determine what the next steps would be moving forward.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, President Biden said that "there's a number of other things that our constitutional scholars have debated and I've looked to see what recommendations that commission might make."
President Biden said that after 180 days of the commission’s creation, he would expect recommendations from them on how to reform the court system.
When it comes to how Justice Barrett’s confirmation will affect the Supreme Court and the U.S. judicial system in the long term, only time will tell.
“Which type of judge is Barrett going to be? Is she going to be with Roberts? Or, is going to be with Thomas and Alito and say, ‘We control the court and we're going to fight the Democrats tooth and nail?’ … We don't really know yet,” Professor Graber said.