What Kind of Judge Is Amy Coney Barrett?



It speaks volumes that the early opponents of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation have almost nothing to say about the work that has defined her career. Her scholarly and judicial writings place her at the center of the mainstream consensus on the judge’s role as an arbiter, not a lawmaker, who abides by the duty to enforce the law as written.

“A faithful judge resists the temptation to conflate the meaning of the Constitution with the judge’s own political preference,” she wrote in a 2017 article, shortly before she took the bench. That requires “fidelity to the original public meaning, which serves as a constraint upon judicial decisionmaking.” Judging also requires humility, to guard against “the feeling of infallibility” that often tempts judges to stray from the law. After all, “courts are not always heroes and legislatures are not always villains. They are both capable of doing good, and they are both capable of doing harm.” Ultimately, “the measure of a court is its fair-minded application of the rule of law.”

Her opinions for the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals show skilled legal craftsmanship and sensitivity for the people whose rights are at stake. Among her most influential decisions is Doe v. Purdue University(2019), on the rights of college students accused of sexual assault. The case involved a male student who was suspended from school and expelled from ROTC based on his girlfriend’s accusation that he had groped her while she slept. He disputed the charge, but the university refused to disclose the evidence against him, to consider exculpatory evidence, and to interview witnesses—even the accuser, whose account it deemed more “credible” than his. All this was “fundamentally unfair,” Judge Barrett concluded, falling “short of what even a high school must provide to a student facing a days-long suspension.”

The male student alleges that the university “tilted the process against men accused of sexual assault” to comply with since-rescinded U.S. Education Department guidance, and thereby discriminated against him on the basis of sex in violation of Title IX. Judge Barrett’s decision, joined by two other female judges, allows that claim to go foward.

What’s notable about the opinion is Judge Barrett’s skill in working through the complexities of the parties’ arguments—which involved disputes over technical legal matters such as standing and remedies, among many others—without losing sight of the bigger picture. Her decision was not an unalloyed win for the male student, who lost on his claim for money damages. But the persuasive force of its reasoning made it an instant landmark in the wave of litigation sparked by the 2011 Education Department guidance. More than half the courts of appeals and dozens of district-court cases have already cited it.

Judge Barrett brought the same analytical acumen to bear in Kanter v. Barr (2019). Her dissenting opinion is an originalist tour de force on the Second Amendment’s application to “felon dispossession” laws, which restrict gun ownership by convicted criminals. The majority held that the government may categorically strip even nonviolent felons of Second Amendment rights. Judge Barrett took a narrower view based on the amendment’s text and history.

Surveying laws and practice around the time of the amendment’s framing in the late 18th century, she found support only for keeping weapons from those deemed dangerous and likely to misuse them. That category, she concluded, is “simultaneously broader and narrower than ‘felons’—it includes dangerous people who have not been convicted of felonies but not felons lacking indicia of dangerousness”—like the plaintiff, who had been convicted of mail fraud, or hypothetical felons convicted for “selling pigs without a license in Massachusetts” or “redeeming large quantities of out-of-state bottle deposits in Michigan.”

In U.S. v. Watson (2018), a Fourth Amendment case, the court considered whether police had reasonable suspicion to block a parked car based on an anonymous report that “boys” were “playing with guns” nearby. Judge Barrett, writing for a unanimous panel, concluded they didn’t. Because Indiana law permits carrying a firearm in public without a license, that tip didn’t create a reasonable suspicion of a crime, even if it might have been prudent for police to visit the scene and speak with those involved voluntarily. Judge Barrett rejected out of hand the government’s argument that a more forceful response could be justified based on the locale: “People who live in rough neighborhoods may want and, in many situations, may carry guns for protection. They should not be subject to more intrusive police practices than are those from wealthy neighborhoods.”

Judge Barrett has also been sensitive to the needs of law enforcement. In Sanzone v. Gray (2018), she joined two other judges in an unsigned opinion holding that officers were entitled to qualified immunity from money damages when a suspect pointed a gun at officers immediately before he was shot. But she has also denied immunity in a series of cases in which officers allegedly lied or fabricated evidence in warrant affidavits. Her decisions hew close to the facts and the law, neither deferring to law enforcement nor accepting unfounded claims of abuse.

Judge Barrett has been especially attuned to overreaching by administrative agencies. She joined several opinions declining to defer to government agencies’ interpretations of their own regulations—a controversial doctrine known as Auer deference, which four Supreme Court justices said last year they were prepared to overturn.

She has also been aggressive in scrutinizing agencies’ factual determinations, particularly in Social Security cases. If C.S. Lewis was right that “integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching,” then these decisions deserve special appreciation, because they hold the government to its burden when the outcome matters to no one but the litigants.

A final illustration of Judge Barrett’s temperament and discernment can be found in two decisions on immigration law. In Cook County v. Wolf (2020), she dissented from a panel opinion blocking the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule, which restricts admission of aliens likely to depend on public benefits. Her dissent was vindicated when the Supreme Court stayed the injunction. In Morales v. Barr (2020), however, she wrote a ruling against an administration policy preventing immigration judges from “administratively closing,” and thereby delaying, deportation cases. While the two opinions differ in their bottom-line results, what they share in common is diligent and faithful statutory analysis following the example of Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom Judge Barrett clerked.

Judge Barrett’s body of work shows her to be independent, discerning, diligent and fair. That’s why her opponents are likely to resort to personal attacks.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office.

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