Many of my friends and family have asked my thoughts about Amy Coney Barrett since her name started being circulated as the next Supreme Court justice because I had her as a professor at Notre Dame Law School. While others are much more qualified to give their inside impression of her (such as NDLS professors O. Carter Snead or Nicole Garnett), she was my evidence law professor and I spoke to her occasionally outside the classroom during my time at NDLS. Anyway, though I normally do not write about legal topics on my blog (seeing as I blog specifically so that I can write other topics beyond the one topic that I write about constantly as part of my job), I wanted to share my recollections of Judge Barrett.
Amy Barrett seemed to genuinely care about people
Going to law school as a married father was one of my most challenging times in my life. It was three years of trying to succeed in a demanding academic program and not mess up as a young husband and father. At the time, my wife and I had a one-year old son of our own and we were also foster parents to two rambunctious little boys.
One of the reasons that I selected Notre Dame Law School was that it seemed like a good place for someone in my life situation. It was. But law school would have been stressful even if I had no other responsibilities. And I had many other responsibilities.
This was a small thing, lawyers, particularly elite lawyers, often get so hyper-focused and competitive that they really do not care about what is going on in the lives of others if it does not directly benefit themselves. Amy Barrett is not like that. She struck me as person that sincerely cares about others.
Amy Barrett is very smart
Being in a class with Amy Barrett is an intense experience. I got the impression that she knows the law by heart and processes her thoughts faster than about anyone else that I have ever met.
Prof. Barrett would randomly call on students and ask them very tough and nuanced questions. The result was that you had to go into Amy Barrett’s class highly prepared. You were not going to waffle, you were not going to wing it, you had to know the material because she knew the material and had high expectations.
Law students are a smart and arrogant bunch of humans despite the modest amount of legal training they have received. Other professors would occasionally get stumped by students and have “Hmmm…. Let me get back to you on that” moments. I honestly do not recall Amy Barrett ever getting stumped. When it comes to intelligence and knowledge of the law, Amy Barrett was in a class of her own.
Amy Barrett is a normal person
It is sad that this is a noteworthy observation, but Amy Barrett struck me as a normal person. I knew that she was Catholic not because of anything that she said, but because I was Catholic and I saw her at the occasional Catholic-focused event hosted by the Law School. She was just a regular person and I cannot say that I recall anything about her that would suggest that she was anything other than your typical Catholic. The Handmaid’s Tale is a great book, but it is profoundly silly to suggest a connection between the enslavement of women in that book and Amy Barrett’s faith life.
Also, Prof. Barrett did not come off as being obsessed with politics. She was more about just teaching the law. There are some law professors (both conservative and liberal) where it takes about 20 minutes in the first class of the semester to know where they fit on the political spectrum. They just ooze politics. Amy Barrett is not like that.
While some may suggest that her reticence to inject politics into the classroom was strategic or to avoiding controversy, I would suggest that it is just a sign that she was a good lawyer. Lawyers are not politicians (though some lawyers become politicians). Good lawyers know that they will be asked to represent clients that they do not agree with and take positions that do not, necessarily, align with their political commitments. When you spout off all the time about your politics to whomever will listen, it makes your clients, or students, wonder if you will treat them fairly if you disagree with them. While Amy Barrett certainly had political commitments, I think it was admirable that she did not impose them upon her students.
There is more to a judge than politics
Finally, no matter how decent and intelligent of a person Amy Barrett is, many will be deeply disappointed by appointment and oppose her confirmation. I understand and sympathize with that. Though I personally think Amy Barrett would do a great job on the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court has immense power and has become increasingly politicized. It is certainly odd that in the world’s greatest democracy, many life-changing and substantive policy decisions are being made by unelected judges. Like much of American government, the Supreme Court needs reform.
That said, one thing that has changed in my thinking in my ten years working as a lawyer is that I care much more about the intelligence and integrity of a judge and much less about a judge’s politics. I have received thoughtful and fair decisions from judges that I am quite politically different from and bizarre and irrational decisions from judges who share most of my political views. As a result, when it comes to judges, it is the quality of the person, by far, that matters most. Even judges who you disagree with will give you fair decisions if they are honest and fair.
When it comes to personal characteristics, my limited experience with Amy Barrett suggests that she is a good person who is very smart. While it is hard to think of a more unfortunate time to be nominated for the Supreme Court than weeks before a presidential election, I think that she is really as good of a candidate as America can hope for.
The cover photo is my son in front of the Supreme Court when he got to tag along with me on a work trip to Washington D.C.