Long before her Senate confirmation hearings, we knew Judge Amy Coney Barrett was smart. A Supreme Court clerkship and prolific career in the legal academy added up to someone uncommonly capable of hard work. That she is Catholic with seven kids — the ‘dogma lives loudly in her’, to borrow Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s immortal slur — is well known. What we didn’t expect was the hearing’s greatest surprise: Judge Barrett is normal.
That is no minor relief in an America that increasingly seems a little unhinged. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse came to the Senate floor bearing an incomprehensible series of partially hand-scrawled charts, like a conspiracy theorist storming a town hall. He sought to prove ‘dark money’ slimes it way through America’s bureaucratic arteries like raw sewage. Judge Barrett sat still and attentive, knowing the last thing such a person needs is any encouragement.
In her exchanges with Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, the candidate shone. Both senators squared off with Barrett, flags of second-wave feminism all-but snapping behind them. Harris reprised her role as prosecutor, laying out an opening argument to warn an imaginary jury not to be charmed by the criminal in magenta. ‘President Trump promised that every justice he put forward, would…“do the right thing, unlike Bush’s appointee John Roberts on Obamacare”. Eighteen months later, you criticized the Chief Justice for upholding the Affordable Care Act… My question is, how many months after you published that article did President Trump nominate you to the Court of Appeals?’
Sen. Amy Klobuchar took up this baton, hammering Barrett with the insinuation that the judge had, in her scholarly work, criticized National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, in order to signal to the President her eligibility for the bench. ‘The truth is, America,’ Klobuchar thundered for the audience at home, ‘that this judicial nominee has made her view so clear. And this president is trying to put her in a position of power to make decisions about your lives.’
In fact, Barrett explained, she had written her article months before Trump had been elected — when no one believed he would. In any case, Barrett’s view of Sebelius is fairly humdrum among conservative legal scholars; many found it hard to believe that the healthcare law’s penalty for noncompliance amounted to a ‘tax’.
But Klobuchar and Harris, both of the baby boomer generation, succeeded in illustrating why so many younger women have been disinclined to take up their second-wave feminism and carry its torch. It isn’t that the movement’s aims are bad nor for any dearth of conviction among its standard-bearers. It was that too many feminists of the Harris-Klobuchar vintage seemed so unhappy. Accomplished, yes — but also full of resentment and discontent.
Nothing like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who always managed to charm. A woman who could stick to her guns but still hop on an elephant with Antonin Scalia, that other kid from Brooklyn. Nor are Harris and Klobuchar reminiscent of Barrett, who apparently manages quiescence and elegance while holding her ground. A judge who — when her former law clerk first flashed a new engagement ring — greeted the news with a visceral shriek and a hug.
Barrett seems poised to uphold Justice Ginsburg’s legacy in bearing and comportment, if not judicial philosophy. And much like Ginsburg would have, Barrett answered complex questions about severability with the ease of a practiced teacher who understands the material so much better than her students. She held still for the hours of questioning, back straight, alert, respectful, never angry. She seemed unable to imagine what mind so twisted by personal ambition could have come up with a theory that her scholarly work, or her completely vanilla assessment of Sibelius, amounted to a series of smoke signals to our president.
When Sen. Harris tried to trap her into taking a stand on climate change, Barrett replied simply: ‘You have asked me a series of questions that are completely uncontroversial’ and then tried to ‘elicit an opinion from me that is on a very contentious matter of public debate. And I will not do that.’
In this way, Barrett also announced herself as a typically Gen-X candidate for the High Court. A member of that affable and ignored generation that neither sought to transform America nor — for the changes it wrought — endlessly to pat itself on the back. A generation caught between the titanic egos of its boomer predecessors and famously entitled millennials that would succeed it. A generation that still believed you purchased success with hard work; that families could be broadened to include gay marriages but required no more drastic overhaul; that America was both great and good and so ought to be able to poke fun at itself.
Sen. Ben Sasse — another Gen-Xer, two months younger than Barrett — fell into easy conversation with her. He was tall and boyishly handsome in the manner of men who still toss around the pigskin after work. He came not to unmask this mother of seven, but to make her laugh. He talked baseball and football. He was cute and smart and gentlemanly, and she seemed relieved by him and charmed.
He joked the senators from Indiana would be relieved to know she’d never run against them. She laughed. He asked her if his take on the role of the Bill of Rights struck her as accurate and asked how she might expand upon his view ‘more eloquently, since you teach this stuff?’
‘Ah, you are far more eloquent that I, Sen. Sasse,’ she said.
For a moment, the hearing became less 12 Angry Men than Say Anything. Here was a rom com, supplier of puff paint from which so many Gen-X dreams were made. For a moment, they reminded us that men and women could be smart and courteous and also goofy. And they left us to hope that in such hands, America might be normal once more.