When Judge Amy Coney Barrett tried to explain the rules of evidence to her Notre Dame law students, she consistently turned to an unexpected tool to help illuminate the lesson: the 1992 Joe Pesci vehicle My Cousin Vinny.
Former student Libby Klesmith remembers Barrett playing two separate clips from the movie. In one, the character played by Marisa Tomei proves she is an expert witness on the topic of automobiles. In another, Pesci impeaches a witness based on the time it takes to make grits.
“She would do things like that where she would bring in media clips or other things to kind of really drive the point home,” Klesmith said. “Her class was fun and engaging. She was one of those professors who really somehow found a way to make the subject matter stick in your brain.”
Barrett, a frontrunner to be nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court, is described by her fellow Notre Dame law school professors and alumni as an immediately impressive legal thinker and an exacting scholar, but also as a fun and encouraging teacher and colleague.
“Especially in those, you know, Northern Indiana perma-gray fall and winter times, it’s nice to actually go into class and have somebody who’s really excited about the subject matter,” alumnus David Roberts said of Barrett’s enthusiastic teaching methods.
President Donald Trump said he would announce his pick to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Saturday, and Barrett is reported to be at the top of Trump’s list. Republicans’ intention to move forward with replacing Ginsburg so close to the November election is controversial because it contradicts a precedent they set in 2016.
Notre Dame Law Prof. Paolo Carozza said he was “conflicted” about his colleague potentially being rushed into a confirmation just weeks before the election.
“I’d love to see [Barrett] on the bench, because I think she’d be a great justice,” Carozza said. “But I do desperately wish that there were more sort of harmony and less conflict in the process of creating our highest court, because in the long run, I think it really undermines the credibility of the judiciary.”
“A textualist … even when it came to her shopping list”
If Trump’s pick is confirmed by the Senate, it would tilt the Supreme Court even further to the right, with six conservative justices and three liberals. In her legal writings, and her three years as a judge on the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Barret has established herself as a reliable conservative on hot-button legal issues like abortion and gun control.
But some in the Notre Dame community insist that Barrett would be a fair-minded justice, open to the arguments of those before her, guided not by ideology but by her strict “originalist” reading of the U.S. Constitution. In originalism, justices try to decipher original meanings of texts in assessing if someone’s rights have been violated. Many liberals oppose that strict approach, saying it is too rigid and doesn’t allow the Constitution to change with the times.
Alumnus Benjamin Lepak said he remembers that, in class, Barrett would jokingly complain about sending her husband to the grocery store with a shopping list and having her husband return with extra items that weren’t on the list.
“As she put it, ‘He went off list,’ ” Lepak remembered. “So we would joke that she was a textualist, you know, even when it came to her shopping list.”
Notre Dame Law Prof. Carter Snead said that devotion to textual readings of law protects Barrett from being influenced by ideology.
“One thing that really stands out is how fair minded her scholarship is. And she doesn’t go in with an ax to grind. She doesn’t go in with an ideological sort of conclusion in search of justifications. She goes in with a genuine, open, scholarly mind, tackling a question,” Snead said.
“Judge Barrett has shown that her role as a judge would be to try to do her very best to interpret the statutes or to read the Constitution as it is and discern the actual meaning in those documents — rather than imposing on them a particular ideological framework.”
Snead, who said he is a close friend of Barrett’s, said he does not believe there is anyone in the country “more well qualified than she is to be on the Supreme Court because of her combination of brilliance, her work ethic, her open mindedness, her charitable manner of engaging with people.”
Every week, Notre Dame’s law faculty meet for a workshop, which they refer to as a “colloquia,” where one professor presents a paper and is peppered with questions by her colleagues. Professors at Notre Dame say those weekly discussions were where Barrett’s impressive intelligence and generous manner were most on display.
Prof. Dan Kelly said he remembers Barrett asking him sharp, insightful questions when he presented a paper, even though the two of them study completely different sections of law.
“The vibe you get from Amy, and this is true both in the workshops and beyond, is both very serious scholar and intellectual. … But at the same time, sort of like not intimidating or not trying to, you know, prove somebody [wrong] or show how smart she is,” Kelly said.
Snead said Barrett has shown a unique ability to engage with people who disagree with her at those weekly faculty discussions.
“In disagreement, she is just so civil and generous in a sense that she’s really trying hard to understand the strongest version of what the argument she is listening to is and crediting it and genuinely attending to it and not simply treating it as an obstacle to whatever outcome she’s seeking or whatever conclusions she’s seeking,” Snead said. “She’s just a generous, open minded person. And I think that’s desperately needed on the court.”
“I don’t think she would be good for this country”
Law School alumna Maryam Arfeen said she too remembers Barrett as fair, engaging and meticulously prepared as a professor.
But she rejected the assertion by some of her former classmates and professors that Barrett would be unswayed by ideology as a Supreme Court justice. As evidence, Arfeen pointed to former Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom Barrett clerked at the Supreme Court and who is arguably the most famous “originalist” in the court’s history.
“If you look at … former Justice Scalia’s rulings, you would see that a lot of times his ideology would factor in and inform the way he made his decisions,” Arfeen said. “So I don’t think that, you know, somebody’s beliefs can be entirely divorced from the way they want to rule in a court of law.”
With that in mind, Arfeen said unequivocally she does not want her former professor elevated to the nation’s highest court.
“I am very concerned with how a Supreme Court with Judge Barrett would impact rulings concerning the Affordable Care Act, reproductive rights and immigration laws,” Arfeen said. “I’m concerned because I think that the Supreme Court leans too far to the right at this time. And I am deeply concerned for the direction that the court will be taking in the future if she or any other nominee is appointed [before the election].”
Arfeen, who practices labor law in Chicago, said she’s been looking at some of Barrett’s decisions in the 7th Circuit since Ginsburg’s death and has been concerned by the conservative bent of some of them.
“I feel somewhat conflicted because … she’s a great professor. She never brought up politics in her classroom. She was a fair professor. I learned a lot from her,” Arfeen said. “But I do not agree with her ideologies at all. I don’t think she would be good for this country and the Supreme Court.”
Barrett is Catholic, and liberals have worried that her legal views are too heavily influenced by her religious beliefs. Some fear Barrett’s ascent to the nation’s highest court could lead to a scaling back of hard-fought abortion rights.
Barrett was a member of the University of Notre Dame’s “Faculty for Life” group, although she is no longer listed as a member — and in 2015 she signed a letter to Catholic bishops affirming the “value of human life from conception to natural death.”
During her 2017 confirmation hearing, when Barrett was up for the 7th Circuit, Democratic Calif. Sen. Dianne Feinstein told Barrett her views suggested religious tenets could guide her thinking on the law: “The conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.”
Barrett responded that her views had evolved and that she agreed judges shouldn’t “follow their personal convictions in the decision of a case, rather than what the law requires.”
Barrett has side-stepped answering questions about her legal opinions when it comes to abortion. In a 2017 White House questionnaire, Barrett was asked if it was her view that abortion was always immoral. She didn’t answer the question directly but said: “If I am confirmed [to the 7th Circuit], my views on this or any other question will have no bearing on the discharge of my duties as a judge.”
Carozza, who describes himself as a political independent and not a Trump administration supporter, said Barrett had never given him “any indication” on whether she would support overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark case that affirmed a woman’s right to abortion.
“I think it’s a very complicated question. There’s 40 years of precedent here. Even those scholars who have criticized Roe v. Wade originally as being not in accord with the Constitution, many of them think that it should be upheld now, because it’s been our precedent for 40 years,” Carozza said. “So how Amy would approach that question is really something that I wouldn’t be able to say.”
From mock trials to the Supreme Court
In her classes at Notre Dame, in another effort to make the academic more concrete, Barrett would hold mock-trials, with students acting as prosecutor and defense attorneys and Barrett as the judge.
Barrett’s former students remember her asking probing, insightful questions as the pretend judge and giving each of their positions a fair shake.
“She was very good at that, at getting us all to talk and try to, you know, fill out our views and flesh them out,” alumnus Deion Kathawa said.
Arfeen most remembers Barrett as “fair” during those exercises.
“She would push the students, you know, and ask them, ‘Please explain your rationale on that or why should I rule in your favor?’ ” Arfeen said. “She would consider what each student had to say. … And I appreciated that. I mean, she was very fair in the classroom.”
Arfeen is skeptical Barrett would bring that same energy to the Supreme Court, at least in cases that bump up against her ideologies.
But most of Arfeen’s classmates interviewed by WBEZ disagree. They believe that Barrett would elevate the court with her passion, intelligence and fairness.
Mariah Woelfel and The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.