Claiming the supreme court “is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks”, Amy Coney Barrett told an audience at a Kentucky center named for the Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell that “judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties”.
Speaking alongside McConnell a little more than a week after she and four other conservatives on the court declined to block a Texas law which all but outlaws abortion in the state, the devout Catholic also insisted the panel does not judge cases based on personal beliefs.
Justices must be “hyper-vigilant to make sure they’re not letting personal biases creep into their decisions,” Barrett said, “since judges are people, too”.
Critics say the “shadow docket” ruling in the Texas case has effectively overturned Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling which safeguards abortion rights. The term “shadow docket” refers to emergency rulings issued without usual proceedings including oral arguments.
Barrett spoke on Sunday at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, a venue created by and named for the Republican leader in the Senate.
In 2016, McConnell blocked Barack Obama’s final pick for the court, Merrick Garland, claiming it was too close to an election and the next president should decide.
Between 2017 and 2020, McConnell then quickly shepherded through three picks made by Donald Trump. Barrett was the last – in place of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a heroine to US liberals – shortly before an election Trump lost.
McConnell, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported, praised Barrett for not trying to “legislate from the bench” and for being from “Middle America”. Barrett is from Indiana and, unlike the other eight justices, did not attend Harvard or Yale.
Barrett said: “My goal today is to convince you that this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.”
The event was picketed by protesters supporting abortion rights. One told the Louisville Courier Journal: “With what’s been happening in Texas, I don’t want it to spread to Kentucky … And so, we’re just coming to let Mitch know how a lot of citizens feel about this issue.”
Echoing recent comments by Stephen Breyer, a liberal, about the court and politics, Barrett said: “To say the court’s reasoning is flawed is different from saying the court is acting in a partisan manner. I think we need to evaluate what the court is doing on its own terms.”
Breyer, the oldest justice on the court at 83, is under pressure from liberals to retire so Joe Biden and Democrats who hold the Senate on the casting vote of the vice-president, Kamala Harris, can confirm a long-term replacement.
Barrett’s appointment to replace Ginsburg tilted the court 6-3 in favor of conservatives. The chief justice, John Roberts, sided with the liberals in opposing the ruling which allowed the Texas law to stand.
Among observers, Barrett’s remarks met with widespread skepticism.
The veteran TV newscaster Dan Rather said on Twitter: “We’re apparently playing the ‘Things you can’t make up’ game this morning. So Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett (speaking at a center named after Mitch McConnell, introduced by Senator McConnell) worries that the court is seen as ‘a bunch of partisan hacks’.”
Scott Shapiro, a law professor at Yale, said Barrett had “expressed concerns Sunday that irony is dead”.
Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator from Rhode Island, wrote: “Not ‘partisan hacks’? Then explain 80-0 partisan 5-4 record for big donors. And explain judicially conservative principles rolled over to get those wins for donors who put you on the court.”
Many liberals say Barrett, guided by her religious beliefs, wants to outlaw abortion.
The new Texas law offers financial rewards to private citizens reporting abortion. The Biden administration has sued, calling the law “clearly unconstitutional”.
Garland, now US attorney general, has said the law is one “all Americans should fear”.
In Louisville, Barrett answered questions submitted in writing.
Asked about the decision to let stand the Texas law which offers financial rewards to private citizens reporting abortions, she said it would be inappropriate to comment.