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Opinion Barrett seeks refuge in ignorance and evasion

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

“Are you saying that you ... refuse to agree with a known fact?” That was the follow-up question Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) asked Amy Coney Barrett after the Supreme Court nominee refused to affirm that there is discrimination in voting. Eventually Barrett did affirm there is discrimination, but her repeated efforts to avoid making statements on rudimentary moral principles (e.g., it is wrong to forcibly separate families) and basic facts (e.g., corporations have more power than an individual employee; the president cannot unilaterally change the date of the election as set in statute) made Barrett come across as disingenuous, evasive and clueless. She even refused to affirm the peaceful transition of power after an election. Either she has lived her life in a soulless vacuum, or she is terribly afraid of offending President Trump.

Barrett was certainly less poised on Wednesday than during previous days. She seemed irritated with Harris, saying she did not know where Harris’s line of questioning was heading. (It didn’t matter. She needed to answer the questions.) She also sounded testy when Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) grilled her on the Affordable Care Act. The Post reported:

“I have no animus or agenda for the Affordable Care Act,” she insisted under questioning from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who was citing the judge’s past comments and writings on the ACA and noting that Barrett’s apparent stance was that the law’s individual mandate was unconstitutional.
Like many panel Democrats before her, Klobuchar at one point raised Barrett’s 2017 law review article criticizing Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s opinion upholding the health-care law, asking whether she had been aware that Trump wanted to overturn the ACA when she wrote it.
This time, Barrett seemed to have lost her patience.
“You’re suggesting this was like an open letter to President Trump,” Barrett protested. “It was not.”

Actually, Klobuchar was pointing out that everyone in the hearing room perfectly understood why Barrett was picked: because she has been an outspoken critic of precedent on abortion, the ACA and other conservative policy targets.

Senators questioned Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett about striking down the ACA. A challenge to the healthcare law will be heard on Nov. 10. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Greg Nash/AP/The Washington Post)

The most painful moments of the hearing may have come when Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) took her through basic facts about voter suppression and bias in the criminal justice system. Her reactions suggested that much of the gross injustices faced by Black Americans, as Booker laid them out, were news to her. In an embarrassing admission, she could not identify any books, law review articles or studies on the legacy of racial discrimination — this at a time when many books on the subject are bestsellers. Not only did she come off as unknowledgeable about a critically important topic, but she apparently also has had no interest in getting up to speed on the great fault line through American life.

She either did not care (because the fix is in) or lacks the mental dexterity to show herself to possess basic knowledge and moral reasoning skills without adopting a position that would imply she is biased in an upcoming case. Oddly, she previously had felt no such hesitation in declaring certain principles that just so happen to please her conservative supporters — e.g., that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stretched the text of the ACA to save it.

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The general impression one gets from Barrett is that she is less knowledgeable about U.S. contemporary life than any Supreme Court nominee in recent memory, with the possible exception of Robert Bork. She cites theories of jurisprudence with ease, but she cannot acknowledge obvious political realities and facts about economic power, discrimination and science. That is a recipe for rigid, abstract judicial reasoning. Despite her insistence to the contrary, she seems to treat jurisprudence in a vacuum, with little regard for how it will affect others with whom she has little familiarity.

At one point, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), a White man, asserted that she wasn’t a racist, to which she proudly affirmed that she was not. It was a self-parody of White privilege — a tableau of two White conservatives patting themselves on the back for not sounding like Jim Crow segregationists. Together, they projected a self-satisfied view of the status quo and a lack of recognition of their own preconceptions about American life.

The hearing might nominally have been about Barrett’s confirmation, but it turned into a cringeworthy display of right-wing ideologues’ ignorance, if not indifference, to unpleasant realities in American life. It was also a compelling advertising for achieving more racial and socioeconomic diversity in Congress and the courts.

Historian Carol Anderson traces the evolution of voter suppression tactics — from poll taxes to poll closures — and argues they are all rooted in White rage. (Video: The Washington Post)