During her September 2017 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Amy Coney Barrett talked about her seven children—two of whom (Vivian and John Peter) are adopted from Haiti, and a third (Benjamin) who has special needs.
If she is nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court next Monday night, this is a part of her story you have to understand. “Vivian is our miracle,” Barrett said (starting around the 26 minute mark). “She was born in Haiti. She came home when she was 14 months old, and she weighed 11 pounds. And she was so weak we were told she might never walk normally or speak. Today Vivian is a track star, and I assure you she has no trouble talking.
“John Peter is 10,” she added. “He was born in Haiti. He joined our family in 2010 when he was 3 years old, after the devastating earthquake.” (The magnitude 7.1 Haitian earthquake in 2010 killed an estimated 220,000-300,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more. As a result, years later, more than 6 percent of Haitians were stricken with cholera.)
“Benjamin, our youngest, is 5. He has special needs,” Barrett continued. “That presents unique challenges for all of us. But I think all you need to know about Benjamin’s place in the family is summed up by the fact the other children unreservedly identify him as their favorite sibling.”
Everyone is focused on whether this devoutly Catholic judge would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, but her background as the adoptive parent of two Haitian children suggests that her interests in defending the dignity of human life doesn’t end at childbirth. How might this worldview impact her decisions, should she be nominated?
During confirmation hearings, would she be asked about the Trump administration’s decision to end temporary protected status for Haiti? The only danger here is the “would you ask this if she was a man” allegation. For me, the answer would be absolutely “yes.”
Another question: What if the issue of family separation made it to the high court?
This is clearly not the kind of issue that breaks down neatly along party lines, but if we are to agree that one’s experience and worldview—even if their goal is to simply call balls and strikes (and, like Barrett, I believe that something can be both “constitutional” and bad policy—influences their decisions, one could speculate that Barrett might have a unique personal perspective on this issue.
The reason I say “speculate” is that Barrett hasn’t ruled on any immigration cases that I can find—unless you count a run-of-the-mill case where she joined another judge’s opinion (PDF).
Having clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and having worked as a Notre Dame law professor, Barrett boasts an impressive resume. But—and expect this to be an issue if she is nominated—Barrett has only served as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit since early November—which means you will have to look elsewhere if you want to read the tea leaves. (For what it’s worth, the Seventh Circuit, which sits in Chicago, doesn’t get many immigration cases, but it tends to be a pretty pro-immigrant court.)
People who want to predict how she might rule will likely look at her Catholic faith and assume one thing. But when you consider the personal sacrifices she has made in her family, one realizes that things are more complicated than the typical left-versus-right paradigm we are force-fed.
“It would be interesting to see how a Justice Barrett would rule on immigration cases,” David Lat, founder of Above the Law, a legal news website, tells me. “Her critics try to claim that her Catholic faith would affect her abortion decisions, even though she has made clear that she would not let religion influence her work as a judge. But these same critics never suggest that Catholic social teaching might make her moderate or liberal on an issue like immigration. How a judge’s personal background influences her work as a judge is a very complex matter that can’t be easily predicted or generalized about.”
Should a judge’s background even matter? Sonia Sotomayor took a lot of flak for her “wise Latina” comments, but the explanation she presented during her confirmation hearing may be appropriate here: “Life experiences do influence us in good ways,” Sotomayor said. “That’s why we seek the enrichment of our legal system from life experiences, but that’s not what drives a result. The impartiality is an understanding that the law is what drives the result... I wasn’t encouraging the belief that I thought that (life experiences) should drive the result.”
Likewise, Barrett, “with the richness of her experiences,” could, perhaps, add some diversity to the court.
If you want to get a sense of someone’s values, look further than their resume. Amy Coney Barrett is living hers.