The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a tragedy. For her family, for the country, and for the world. Her death leaves an immeasurable void. She was a powerhouse, the likes of which we may not see again for some time. She is and was a woman of incredible intelligence and empathy. She is irreplaceable, and it will take outstanding shoes to fill the vacancy her death left on the Supreme Court.
While the country mourns her death, political minds are already turning toward the question of who will sit in her seat, who will try to walk in her shoes, and when. Trump has promised to nominate a woman for the position, and a few names have already been passed around.
One of the names that is purportedly topping his list is Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
At first, quick glance, she’s an attractive candidate for the evangelical and conservative base. Nan Aron, the president of Alliance for Justice, noted in an article for The New York Times that “Amy Coney Barrett meets Donald Trump’s two main litmus tests: She has made clear she would invalidate the A.C.A. and take health care away from millions of people and undermine a woman’s reproductive freedom.”
She currently serves as a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, a position Trump appointed her to in 2017. Before that, she taught law at the University of Notre Dame. She has received a range of accolades through her short career.
In the early part of her career, she clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia, who was a champion of originalism—a theory based on the idea that judges should interpret the Constitution based on the way the Founding Fathers had intended when they drafted it. Generally, this way of interpreting laws leads to conservative decisions.
She has previously committed to following all Supreme Court precedents, like Roe v. Wade, but there is evidence that she would overturn the landmark decision and side with the conservative wing of the court — a potential result of her confirmation that pro-birth and anti-choice supporters no doubt cheer.
On top of all of that, at 48 years old, her relative youth makes her particularly attractive to the Republican conservative base, as they see her as a potential representative voice for decades.
But a second, longer look at Trump’s frontrunner reveals that she’s a terrifying choice for the country in general, and women specifically.
Amy Coney Barrett belongs to a Christian group called People of Praise. (The name sounds cult-like, right? Or maybe 2020 has worn me down and I’ve gotten too cynical for my own good. Nevertheless, that’s the name and if I were planning to name a cult, that one would be on my shortlist.)
In 2017, during Barrett’s confirmation hearing for the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the New York Times wrote an article about her affiliation with the group. Though it didn’t use the word “cult,” it did note that “[m]embers of the group swear a lifelong oath of loyalty, called a covenant, to one another, and are assigned and are accountable to a personal adviser, called a ‘head for men and a ‘handmaid’ for women.” Yes, handmaid!
The Times also reported that the “group teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and should take authority over the family.”
If that all sounds like the beginning of a Margaret Atwood novel to you, say The Handmaid’s Tale, then you wouldn’t be alone or way off base. In a 1986 New York Times Book Review, Atwood herself noted that the group played some role in inspiring the bestselling novel turned award-winning Hulu series.
Judges are of course entitled to their beliefs, religious or otherwise, but judges must also be able to interpret the law without imposing those personal beliefs. While Barrett has noted she would be able to separate her beliefs, one can’t help but wonder how the opinion that the husband is the head of the wife plays into that separation. And her husband’s beliefs and opinions aren’t the only ones to consider. The Times reported that legal scholars were concerned with how a judicial nominee’s loyalty oath to a group that has such a serious influence over its members’ lives could impact her independence and impartiality.
It’s a question that needs to be asked, and her answer needs to be carefully analyzed. We all need to know where she has pledged her loyalty, and question how that loyalty will affect her ability to make fair and impartial rulings.
Putting a woman who subscribes to the belief that a husband should take authority over the family in the seat of a woman who fought tirelessly and valiantly for gender equality feels like an insult to a legend. (It also seems par for the course for an administration that installed a coal industry lobbyist as head of the EPA and a woman with a mission to dismantle public education in the role of Secretary of Education.)
As a widow, as a female head of household, I read and then watched The Handmaid’s Tale for entertainment value, but also with an eye toward vigilance, and a low key fear that the story served as a cautionary tale for women everywhere.
That cautionary tale feels too close to reality today. This is the time to be vigilant. To protect a legacy.