The opening day of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court was kid-friendly. It was child-obsessed. It was a little over five hours of children as talking points and visual aids and proof of unwavering conservative values. It’s hard to recall a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee that was so focused on the well-being, the deportment and the birth story of our youngest citizens.
Rare was the Republican on the committee who was able to deliver an opening statement without referring to the seven children in the Barrett family. This feat of parenting seemed to leave them gobsmacked with admiration and utterly mystified as to how a two-parent household with significant financial resources was capable of wrangling such a large brood without the missus showing up with oatmeal on her clothes. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) couldn’t contain himself from acknowledging that not only did Barrett have a big family of her own, but she also was the product of one, just like him. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) was impressed by her kids’ good behavior and said he was hoping for parenting tips.
The many references to Barrett’s children were a not-so-subtle pronouncement that her prolific motherhood was especially good and admirable and a sign that she was not shirking her womanly duty while she was unleashing her ambition. Barrett had it all — on terms that were acceptable to social conservatives.
The Republicans spent a great deal of their time bragging that Barrett’s résumé was remarkable and that she was eminently qualified for the Supreme Court. But in their opening statements, there was little teasing or foreshadowing of supporting data points — aside from the fact that as a law professor, her students really, really liked her. Instead, they spent an inordinate amount of time crowing about her school-age children, her two adopted children and the sheer number of children under her care. To hear the Republicans tell it, children are Barrett’s most distinguished qualifications. Fatherhood on a potential justice’s curriculum vitae has not elicited a similarly boastful torrent.
Republicans felt compelled to shine a special spotlight on the two children she and her husband adopted from Haiti. Are they not all her children, and shouldn’t they simply be described as such — at least by those outside her circle? Highlighting their adoption comes across as a way for Republicans to vouch for Barrett’s welcoming nature and her embrace of diversity. It’s their antiabortion argument that there are loving homes waiting to welcome any and all kids.
The Democrats mostly ignored Barrett’s offspring. Instead, they spoke of the children of their constituents and the many ways in which they would suffer if the Affordable Care Act were dismantled. For Democrats, health care was their near-singular focus, as the party fears that if Barrett reaches the court she will do as President Trump so desperately wants and vote against the Affordable Care Act in an upcoming case.
Democrats came with poster-size photos of smiling children who would all suffer without the ACA. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told the story of Kenny, whose congenital heart ailment had rung up $1 million in medical costs over the first four months of his life. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) offered up a photo of twin girls from her home state, one of whom was living with diabetes and needed the ACA for reliable health insurance. Her sister also had received a similar diagnosis.
There’s little the Democrats can do procedurally to halt Barrett’s confirmation, and so the children were their pitch to the American people to call their Republican senators and cry foul. But it’s doubtful those legislators would listen.
Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) made it clear in his opening statement that the hearings would be a fast-paced show without substance. He offered up meandering justification for contradicting his previous stance on not confirming new justices in an election year, but he could have saved everyone time and consternation if he had just spoken the truth, which is that this is a huge opportunity that’s too irresistible to pass up.
The show’s ending is preordained: “All the Republicans will vote yes; all the Democrats will vote no,” Graham said. He was really just holding the hearings to be polite. And then he puffed himself up on sanctimony and warned that everyone should be on their best behavior because “the world is watching.”
What exactly did the world see — if it hasn’t already turned away from this country in horror? It saw children used as messaging devices. It saw Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) describe the 2018 confirmation hearings for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh as a “freak show,” because apparently asking a Supreme Court nominee to address credible accusations of sexual assault is against the natural order of things. “It looked like the cantina bar scene out of ‘Star Wars,’ ” Kennedy added. The world saw flailing Democrats and self-righteous Republicans.
And the world saw Barrett. She sat at the witness table in the center of it all wearing a non-wrinkling dress in a jubilant shade of magenta, a strand of pearls and a dark face mask. And while the hearing was ostensibly about Barrett, she spent the vast majority of it silent and nearly immobile. It was a feat of self-control that she didn’t appear to fidget or even furrow her brow. She didn’t fold her arms across her chest in a defensive posture as Democrats declared her a menace to liberal society. She didn’t lean in as Republicans anointed her a maternal Wonder Woman in judicial robes.
Barrett simply sat and blinked. And when she finally spoke, for just about 12 minutes, it was to make a few key points about her cultural identity. If confirmed, she would be the only justice who had not attended those bastions of East Coast elitism, Harvard or Yale; she graduated law school at Notre Dame. She believes in the power of prayer.
And she would be the first mother of school-age children to serve on the court.