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Opinion Don’t let Amy Coney Barrett fool you: Everything the court does is political

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett speaks to an audience at the 30th anniversary of the University of Louisville McConnell Center in Louisville on Sept. 12. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

If you want to know what Republicans will say if and when the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade next year, you only have to look at Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s extraordinary new display of, well, trolling.

Not every justice would have the sheer gall to make a speech about the importance of the court staying above politics while appearing at a celebration for Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). But that’s what Barrett did.

And she showed how the Supreme Court can pursue a radical ideological agenda, one aimed at creating a conservative legal and political revolution in America, while simultaneously protesting that they would never consider something as unseemly as politics.

The occasion was an event honoring the anniversary of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville in the senate minority leader’s home state of Kentucky. He, of course, is the man who fast-tracked her nomination in the waning days of the Trump presidency, after refusing to allow Barack Obama’s nominee a hearing on the grounds that it was too late in Obama’s term.

McConnell’s ruthlessness has already borne fruit — in no area so vividly as Roe, whose destruction both liberals and conservatives now regard as all but inevitable after Barrett and four other conservatives allowed Texas’ blatantly unconstitutional antiabortion law to take effect.

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But with McConnell by her side, Barrett insisted that she and the other justices are unsullied by politics. “This court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks,” she said. “Judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties,” she went on, reminding everyone that she’s an “originalist.”

In her confirmation hearings, Barrett said much the same — which Republican nominees always do. She was particularly vigorous in her insistence on her own breathtaking purity of mind, in which the grubbiness of politics was so far beneath her that she could barely see it from her perch in the intellectual clouds.

Weirdly enough, conservatives greeted her confirmation with rapturous joy, almost as if they didn’t believe her when she promised to rule in ways unmoored from any political or ideological concern or agenda.

Those conservatives popping the champagne know full well that those who call themselves “originalists,” as Barrett did, are seldom constrained from finding their way to whatever rulings they prefer on complex contemporary issues the Framers could not possibly have foreseen.

So how can Barrett say she’s not “partisan” and is motivated not by an ideological agenda but by a “judicial philosophy” unencumbered by political considerations? By defining “politics” so narrowly that it loses all relevance. The truth, however, is that everything the Supreme Court does is political, and that’s particularly true of its conservative majority.

No honest person can claim, for instance, that the string of decisions the court has issued upholding Republican efforts to solidify their minority rule — aggressive voter purges, brutal gerrymandering, all manner of techniques to make it harder to vote — are not political. Are the court’s attacks on unions not political? When Barrett and her fellow conservatives overturn Roe, is that not going to be political?

Of course it will be. Politics is about how power is distributed and used, how government relates to citizens, and how the law chooses to structure those relationships. It’s all political, because the political is where the law meets the real world.

The fact that in a particular case a justice can come up with a justification beyond “I’m just ruling this way because it’s what Republicans want” — even a persuasive one — doesn’t mean that her decisions don’t have profound political implications. And she and the other justices are well aware of those implications before they rule.

Sometimes they rule in ways that might confer political advantage on their ideological compatriots and sometimes they’ll rule in ways that might create political problems for their friends, but they do it with their eyes open every time, even as some of them continue to weave a myth of their own innocence.

The pending demise of Roe is a perfect example. If and when the conservative justices overturn that decision, they’ll do so knowing that it will almost certainly produce a backlash that will harm the Republican Party. But stopping women from being able to access abortion is such a long-standing ideological goal for conservatives — including those on the court — that they’re willing to see the GOP take some political damage.

The decision will affect politics in every corner of the country, probably in some ways we can’t anticipate. But when it happens, Republicans will say it was only the court doing the right thing, and that it was nothing more than what the Constitution and the beliefs of the Framers demand. And they’ll say it with a smirk, knowing that lying so gleefully drives liberals crazy, when the truth is far more simple: They’re the ones with the power, and they’ll use it to get what they want.

That’s politics too — a form of politics that is now playing out in a battle for control of women’s bodies and lives. And precisely because it’s political, it couldn’t be more important. Don’t let anyone get away with denying it.

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