I’ve got a question that Democratic senators might have considered posing to Amy Coney Barrett on the occasion of last week’s hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee: What’s a nice woman like you doing keeping company with a bunch of fascists like this?
That’s perhaps a bit flip, but the substance remains: At what point does someone like Amy Coney Barrett — at what point do all the judges to whom Trump has granted lifetime appointments — take responsibility for who made them? More important, to what extent can citizens trust the jurisprudence of people who, like Barrett, swallowed hard and accepted these appointments from someone so obviously illiberal, so clearly unfit for the job, someone who (lest we forget) was impeached not 9 months prior, someone who subsequently mismanaged and repeatedly lied to our faces re. a public health crisis (out of pure political self-interest, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of Americans dead), someone who (according to Mueller report) would have been charged with 10 counts of obstructing justice were he not a sitting president, someone who refuses to disavow white supremacists, someone who apparently ran up hundreds of thousands in tax bills to foreign countries while paying next to no taxes in his own (during his presidential term!), someone who is essentially an unindicted co-conspirator in a felony to secure a second term by stopping the count of mail-in/absentee votes — something he has told us he is going to do! He also awarded Rush Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom. A superb judge of character, our president.
It would be naïve to ask, “What does it say about Trump that he has openly cited the need for Barrett to be on the high court in time to provide him a 5-4 decision, a la Bush v. Gore in 2000, should a disputed election be flung into the courts?” We know why. He’s incorrigible. But this misses the larger, more immediate point. What does it say about Barrett that she’d accept this man’s nomination — then refuse to discuss her recusal during the Senate’s advise and consent process?
Should we succeed in unseating Il Douché, we as a people will be obliged to confront the incredible damage he and his administration (and his followers) have to done to the United States, its culture, its comity, its government, its legal norms and infrastructures. Addressing and mitigating this damage is already underway — witness the discussion of SCOTUS expansion, of 18-year terms on the high court, of statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico (to remedy the undemocratic concentration of power in 20-odd sparsely populated farm states, many of them literally manufactured in the late 19th century to, wait for it, boost the electoral power of the Republican Party). There is little question from either side that Biden will win the popular vote in two weeks time. If we are fortunate enough to see that vote reflected in the Electoral College (our most troubling monument to dead Confederates), there will surely be a roll-back of executive actions this administration has backed — a fairly common occurrence when one administration is replaced by another.
But the undermining of U.S. law and legal precedents by Trump appointees extends to the government bureaucracy and its courts. This man’s enablers, those he installed, must be identified and held to account. Amy Coney Barrett is a good place to start.
I’m 56 years old. Reckoning with this successful attempt to pervert and circumvent our legal system will dominate our politics for the remainder of my lifetime. I recognize the Federalist Society and movement conservatism predate Trump’s inauguration. But the president has bared and magnified the naked, reductive politics at play here, for all to see. As such, for decades to come there will be ongoing reference to and spotlighting of the 300-odd judges that Trump nominated and Mitch McConnell forced through the hyper-politicized Senate from 2016-2020 (after slow-walking Obama nominees for 8 years).
What we do with Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Barrett and their Trump-nominated, lower-court brethren remains to be seen. But their lifetime appointments, from Trump, expose them to a different sort of long-term scrutiny. It’s not going to go well.
Some individual judges will perhaps adjust and move away from Federalist Society-approved originalism and other specious stances undergirded by right-wing, white supremacist, and moneyed interests (methinks Judge Roberts is doing this right now). Others will not. Dealing with this latter group of true believers, and their blinkered attitudes toward precedent, and the legacy of the demonstrably fascist figure who nominated them, will be difficult.
But it will have to be done and the particular case of Amy Coney Barrett is a logical, timely place to begin this effort. If it requires her tarring and feathering, so be it. She has made her bed.
Some senator should have urged her to simply withdraw. “You don’t want to be the face of Trumpism going forward,” Amy Klobuchar should have told her on Monday, Oct. 12, the day hearings began. “You seem like a nice person. Don’t put your family through this. Because, you know, there’s a name for people who do the bidding of fascists and accept their patronage… They’re called fascists.”
I’m not naïve. And we shouldn’t allow the public (maskless) display of her 7 children, or softball questions re. who does the laundry in her household, to distinguish Barrett from Kavanaugh or Gorsuch or any of the hundreds of judges who have been systematically indoctrinated and funneled toward these seats the last 20 years. These are clearly movement conservatives first and foremost, men and women of enormous ambition and movement discipline who may not care who nominates them.
I think it’s in America’s long-term interest to make them care.
Because even Federalist Society talisman Leonard Leo, and Charles Koch, and all the other billionaire industrialists who’ve funded the Society’s reliably conservative judge-minting operation, never anticipated a Nominator in Chief like Donald J. Trump.
In short, the Republican Party has politicized the high court. The only reasonable response is to begin treating the judges their system has manufactured as political creatures.
Americans have traditionally not paid much attention to who exactly nominated this judge or that judge. David Souter was famously nominated by George H.W. Bush only to become a pretty reliable center-left-leaning member of the court. The evolution of his jurisprudence should have been a badge of honor, an argument for how lifetime appointments allow jurisprudential freedom. Instead, he proved — to the right — a cautionary tale, the single-most urgent call to action when it came to blatant right-wing judge minting.
Our president shattered what remained of this norm, along with so many others, with his rants about Obama judges, Mexican judges, etc. We cannot afford to be sentimental about the way SCOTUS has been perceived the last 80 years. That paradigm is gone, dead and buried. The GOP killed it. In less than two weeks, the court will have three “Trump judges”. Everything they do going forward should be presented through this lens. It’s no less than they deserve.
Among the many things Judge Barrett refused to say during her hearings (who needs notes when you’re not answering questions?) was whether she would recuse herself from the ACA case due to be heard on Nov. 10 — she is on record, as a private citizen and a judge, opposing Roberts’ 2012 “cross-over” vote to preserve the health care law. She would, she told the Judiciary Committee, consider judicial ethics rules and consult with her colleagues. She similar dodged recusal questions relating to suits that may arise from the election next month — suits about which President Trump has been so very vocal and specific re. the quid pro quo he expects to receive.
“I certainly hope that all members of the Committee have more confidence in my integrity than to think that I would allow myself to be used as a pawn to decide this election for the American people,” she said.
What evidence, Judge Barrett, would we have of that integrity?
Someone with that sort of integrity, for example, would have greeted President Trump’s nomination with a polite “Thanks, but no thanks.” Someone who wasn’t educated and groomed as a sort of right wing Manchurian Candidate would look at the man nominating her, the administration he has run for 3.5 years, and run for the hills. You are already a pawn, Judge Barrett. A willing one. Even the most equitable, responsible jurisprudence going forward will not remove the stain of this man’s imprimatur.
We should all set about studying how Italians, Germans, Japanese and South Africans dealt with high-court judges who ascended to their respective seats according the whims of corporate ethno-nationalist bigots. We’ve never had to do this, in America, because we’ve never elected a man like Trump. If you think he’s ill-thought-of today, wait 5-10 years. Trials on the order of Nuremberg may be too jarring a framing, in America (though I’m pretty sobered up on the matter of lost idealism by now). Truth and reconciliation commissions may better fit the bill. Withdrawal of her own nomination would have saved Barrett this trial, as it were. She would have exhibited the integrity she presumes for herself — and set a powerful precedent for unbiased jurisprudence. But that is not what ACB is about. And on account of this movement decision-making and her lack of discretion, she’s fated to serve as the face of Trumpism for as long as she serves on the court.