As she introduced herself to the nation in the White House Rose Garden, Amy Coney Barrett, Donald Trump’s newest Supreme Court nominee, almost sounded respectful. “The flag of the United States,” she said, “is still flying at half-staff in memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to mark the end of a great American life.”
Really it was a taunt. Barrett, in a venue deliberately decorated to copy Ginsburg’s own nomination scene, was showing up to snatch Ginsburg’s job before the late justice’s body was even in the ground. “I will be mindful of who came before me,” Barrett said—but not so mindful as to acknowledge, let alone respect, Ginsburg’s direct dying wish that the seat stay vacant until a newly elected president could fill it.
The words fit the deed. When Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, he used his introductory remarks to praise Trump for having put more thought and effort into the selection than any previous president had. It was absurd to claim Trump had done any such thing; Kavanaugh was merely pledging loyalty, demonstrating that he is a ridiculous liar and a toady. In the same vein, by bringing up Ginsburg, Barrett established who she is: a shameless, cynical careerist who believes nobody can stop her.
So far, the debate around this nomination has purported to be about people being unkind or unfair to Barrett, with Republicans preemptively denouncing Senate Democrats for their plans to attack her charismatic Catholic religious identity or her traditionalist wife-and-mother persona—and Senate Democrats shying away from attacking her at all, in favor of vague hand-wringing about how Trump and Mitch McConnell are abusing the nomination process.
But what’s wrong with Barrett isn’t that she’s too pious, or that she’s submissive in her personal life. It’s that she’s bent on making herself one of the nine most powerful judges in the country, even if she has to do it in the most graspingly partisan and destructive way possible.
“I never imagined that I would find myself in this position,” she said in the Rose Garden—a lie as brazen, in context, as Kavanaugh’s claim to have been the product of unprecedentedly rigorous presidential vetting. In fact, Trump had long ago hailed her as a Supreme Court justice in waiting, because she’s a dedicated right-wing judicial politician who’s been angling for the job for years. She’s a member of the Federalist Society, loyal to the band of wealthy and publicly anonymous donors who put millions of dollars of ads and campaign donations behind McConnell’s blockade of Merrick Garland.
Their ethics are her ethics. Her own current seat on the federal bench, on the Seventh Circuit, was held open for her by another Senate blockade of an Obama nominee. Her work as a judge, in her brief time doing it, has been cruel and heavily slanted rightward, and she has a prior history of supporting illiberal activist groups and endorsing absolutist positions. To argue about her past holdings or her potential future decisions, though, is to miss the point: She doesn’t care what the public, or the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, think about her as a judge. She didn’t even bother to complete her disclosure forms. What explains this approach? It’s “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” for seats on the bench.
Some liberal legal scholars have gone out of their way to give testimonials about Barrett’s temperament and decency. She is surely kind to her colleagues, but all they’re describing is a networking strategy. Everyone who maneuvers themself into position for a judicial nomination is nice to the other people who populate or operate the pipeline. Yale Law professor Amy Chua wrote an op-ed praising Kavanaugh when he was up for the court; Kavanaugh gave Chua’s daughter a Supreme Court clerkship in return. Barrett’s endorsers are telling the public nothing more than that they personally want to have a Supreme Court justice on their side. Whose side she’ll take in actual court business is irrelevant to them.
Since the Rose Garden speech, Barrett’s pursuit of the seat clarified her character. Her announcement festivities—a crowded series of indoor-outdoor events, full of maskless VIPs schmoozing the maskless nominee and her maskless family, in defiance of basic public-health protocols and municipal limits on gatherings—turned out to be a COVID superspreader event, sickening Trump himself and infecting a broad swath of the administration and multiple senators. Instead of slowing down and trying to take stock of the disaster, or even fully tracing the outbreak and notifying the people who may be in danger, the Republican Party is stampeding on with her confirmation process: abandoning any effort to pass COVID relief legislation, convening yet more meetings with potentially infectious people in them, refusing to even test all the senators so that they won’t have to be quarantined.
And Barrett is encouraging this. The coverage of her campaign for the position projects an odd passivity onto her, as if she’s simply been caught up in events controlled by others. But the truth is that she’s actively lobbying for the job, calling senators to help push the process along, even as the virus runs loose through official Washington. She reportedly already had the virus during the summer, so the odds are it’s not going to harm her personally.
Some people, if they discovered themselves at the center of an orgy of illness and destruction, staged for their own aggrandizement—and to boost the reelection bid of a bigot and multiply accused rapist—might have second thoughts about what they were doing. Barrett could stop the circus if she wanted. She is only 48 years old. If she has to wait for another chance—even until the winner of the 2024 election is sworn in—she’ll be 52. That’s still younger than Kavanaugh, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, or Samuel Alito were when they were nominated, to just look at the current justices.
Why would she need to wait even that long, though? Surely if the American public wants Donald Trump making Supreme Court picks and Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority confirming them, the voters will reelect them a month from now, and Barrett’s seat would be assured, with no need for frantic plague-dodging. She could even take the time to complete her paperwork and go through more than pro forma vetting and hearings, for courtesy’s sake.
But Barrett knows perfectly well that the public is against Trump and McConnell, and against her, too. She is determined to win this victory right now, while she still can, for herself and her agenda. The will of the public doesn’t enter into it, any more than morality does. Barrett is an educated person. She graduated at the top of her law school class. She certainly can count past four. She knows Antonin Scalia, the justice she clerked for, died in February of 2016, and that Ginsburg died in September of 2020—four years and seven months apart—and that Trump is claiming the right to fill both vacancies.
What sort of prospective Supreme Court justice believes a president should get five years’ worth of court picks in a four-year term? The same kind who puts herself forward for an impossibly rushed confirmation process, and who declines to say if she’ll recuse herself from cases that might decide the reelection of the president who is taking such extraordinary measures to give her the job. Like McConnell and Trump, her vision of the law is based on nothing more than what she can get away with; the Constitution is a set of rules to be gamed for personal advantage, not a framework for popular legitimacy or justice. The entire presidency of Donald Trump has been building toward this moment, and Amy Coney Barrett is the woman he was waiting for.
Support Slate’s politics coverage
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Join Slate Plus to support our work. You’ll get unlimited articles and a suite of great benefits.