The US Senate has confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in a move that will likely secure a conservative court majority for many years to come.
In its timing, Monday’s vote for Donald Trump’s pick was the closest high court confirmation ever to a presidential election, and the first in modern times with no support from the minority party.
That President Trump appointed a replacement to Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died aged 87, at all is controversial. When the judge knew she was dying, she said: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” But Trump knew how influential the job is and saw this as an opportunity to shore up his power — the Supreme Court decides the law on pivotal issues including abortion and gun control. Mitt Romney ensured that a vote would go ahead by tipping the balance of Republicans in favour of it to 51. The president’s fellow Republicans voted 52-48 to approve the judge to overcome the unified Democratic opposition.
Trump had his sights set on Barrett since 2018, when another associate justice position came up. Brett Kavanaugh was appointed instead (that’s another saga) because Trump said he was “saving [Barrett] for Ginsburg”. So who is she and will her appointment divide America even further?
“Barrett meets Trump’s two main litmus tests,” says Nan Aron of liberal group Alliance for Justice. She is a woman, which Trump thinks is good for optics. More importantly, she is the darling of America’s religious Right; a Catholic who is opposed to abortion and gay marriage. But while choosing a woman aligned with his beliefs makes Trump feel secure, it could backfire. Some fear Barrett’s appointment may put swing voters off Republicans, especially those concerned about abortion.
Barrett is a member of religious group People of Praise, which believes in speaking in tongues and healing, and she made headlines in 2017 when she was appointed to the Court of Appeals. Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein told Barrett: “The dogma lives loudly within you.” Catholics printed this on T-shirts as an act of defiance. Colleagues praise her dispassionate nature and say there is no evidence her religious beliefs affect her job.
Barrett grew up in a suburb of New Orleans. Her father was an attorney for Shell and her mother a housewife. She won a scholarship to Notre Dame Law School in Indiana and graduated top of her class, joining the law faculty in 2002. Her husband Jesse is a former federal prosecutor who now practises privately. They have seven children, including a son with Down’s and two children they adopted from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and she is a keen volunteer at their school.
“This is a momentous day for America,” Trump said at a primetime swearing-in event on the South Lawn at the White House on Monday. Justice Clarence Thomas administered the Constitutional Oath to Ms Barrett before a crowd of about 200 people.
Ms Barrett told those gathered she believes “it is the job of a judge to resist her policy preferences”, and vowed: “I will do my job without any fear or favour.”