If we hope to heal our fractured nation and move forward as a civilized people, there’s one factor in the recent nomination hearings that we would be wise to explore further: the exceptional character of Amy Coney Barrett.
On Saturday, USA Today ran a story entitled, “Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court hearings lacked the drama that Brett Kavanaugh's proceedings had. Here's why.” The article begins by pointing out the contentious lead-up to the confirmation hearing and the expectation that the hearing itself would be similar—or perhaps even more charged—than Kavanaugh’s. It continues with:
“But instead, the hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee were largely drama-free, leaving Barrett unscathed and on track to be confirmed by the full Senate by the end of October. Democrats, while pressuring Barrett for her stance on issues, were at times warm and complimentary to the federal appeals court judge and her family. The four days of hearings even ended with a hug between the top Republican and Democrat on the panel.”
Most of us watching were probably as surprised as the article’s writers, Nicholas Wu and Cristal Hayes, appear to have been by this turn of events. Wu and Hayes present several factors for the calmer than anticipated tone and tenor of the proceedings.
- The democrats knew that they were unable to block the nomination.
- COVID pushed the protestors outside. To this point we would add that COVID pushed some of judicial committee members outside as well, the effect being that instead of an “angry room of interlocutors,” Judge Barrett faced some of her most severe critics via a one-on-one Zoom call.
- Less delving into her personal life. We’ll talk more about this below.
- Election day clouded the hearings. This is a good point because with the presidency and the senate at stake, it must be difficult for committee members to be fully engaged in an inevitable Supreme Court affirmation. Furthermore, as the USA Today points out, the democrats are feeling somewhat positive about their chances of winning the presidency and don’t want to do anything that could turn public opinion against them.
These are reasonable factors, and each certainly influenced the deliberations. But there’s one factor that needs to be further explored—and that’s the person of Amy Coney Barrett herself. USA Today’s third point above touches on this, but the article does not point out the fact that Judge Barrett:
- May be the most knowledgeable person in the room on matters of law (e.g., the blank notepad).
- Is someone that you can disagree with and still like.
- Has moral integrity and hence moral authority.
These last two points should remind us of a previous bridge building leader—Ronald Reagan. Many of us bemoan the fact that there are no contemporary parallels in high office to his style of political leadership.
Politics is confrontational, but before cable news and social media there was a certain minimum level of decorum that combatants were expected to meet. Reagan cleared this standard by a wide margin, and in spite of this (or perhaps because of it), was able to consistently obtain his desired outcomes through negotiations. He was also savvy enough to recognize that a partial victory is part way towards a complete one and much better than a standoff that gets nowhere.
Whether or not Regan’s negotiating style would work in today’s “pit bull” politics is a reasonable question, but perhaps Amy Coney Barrett just gave us an indication that likeability and integrity can still carry the day.
In her acceptance of the nomination, Judge Barrett talked about how Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia often clashed on matters of law, but they maintained a lasting personal friendship despite their legal differences. Extending this to how they both might think about the current situation with Amy Barrett, one could see them disagreeing on whether or not her legal opinions will be good for the country, yet agreeing that the court needs people with her professional and personal qualities.
If we plan to return to civility and bring peace to our divided nation, we need to look to the patience, decorum, and charity of Amy Coney Barrett.