One Year Later: The Supreme Court after Justice Barrett’s Confirmation

Courts Resources 10.26.21

By Samantha Cyrulnik-Dercher

One year ago, Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed by the Senate to be an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Leadership Conference opposed her confirmation because of her extremist record and opposition to civil and human rights. We warned the Senate that she was hostile to health care access and an outspoken opponent of reproductive freedom and LGBTQ equality. We noted her dangerous judicial record of siding with corporations over working people and making it harder for survivors of sexual violence on college campuses to seek justice, in addition to her troubling rulings and dissents against immigrants and victims of law enforcement misconduct.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shattered longstanding norms to rush Justice Barrett onto the bench in late October, while millions of people were already casting votes in the 2020 election for the senators and president they wanted to decide who would fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court. This was the height of political hypocrisy, especially after Senator McConnell refused to fill a Supreme Court vacancy eight months before Election Day just four years prior, when the occupant of the White House was a Democrat.

Now, with a 6-3 solid ultraconservative majority, the Supreme Court has already issued some particularly devastating and cruel decisions. These decisions harm people and threaten our rights: undermining our freedom to vote by further undermining the Voting Rights Act; allowing the blatantly unconstitutional and egregiously harmful Texas abortion ban to take effect; upending the lives of countless people by ending the government’s ban on evicting people from their homes during a deadly global pandemic; and forcing the government to continue the cruel “remain in Mexico” immigration policy that denies people their legal rights to seek asylum. Under these circumstances, it’s no surprise that public approval of the Supreme Court has plummeted. People have watched politicians play fast and loose with our democracy based on partisan interests, and the results have been destructive to our civil and human rights.

In each of these cases, Justice Barrett was a vote to curtail critical rights from people who have already been marginalized in the midst of the pandemic. Still, Justice Barrett gave a speech — at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, where she was introduced by Senator McConnell himself — insisting that the Supreme Court is not political. But the issues that the Supreme Court decides cannot be chalked up only to simple differences of “judicial philosophy.” We know that political forces aligned to stack the Court, which decides issues of life and death for millions of people.

As The Leadership Conference’s Wade Henderson recommended to the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court when he testified before the commission in July:

“First, engage and center the people historically marginalized by the Supreme Court… Judges and justices must recognize the full humanity of all people in America. This is what drives our coalition: We are bound by our determination to create a nation as good as its ideals, and a nation where the promise of equal justice under law includes all of us, not just a powerful few.”

That determination — to bring meaning to the promise of equal justice — is what informs our vision of what the Supreme Court could be. The judiciary was built to protect the white, the wealthy, and the powerful, and it is up to us to drive change. We need justices who are committed to protecting the civil and human rights of all of us. We need justices who reflect and represent the diversity of our nation. We need diversity of background and personal experience, but also professional experience, to ensure that our highest court reflects the knowledge of lawyers who have fought for civil rights, not just for corporations.

As Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently acknowledged, the Supreme Court lost its only civil rights lawyer when Justice Ginsburg passed away. The Supreme Court has the final say on countless areas of our lives — our freedom to vote, our rights as immigrants, our reproductive freedoms, our housing, our health care, and so much more. If we confirm justices who have experience in these areas and who understand the impact of the decisions they make — justices who look like America and enable all of us to see ourselves on the Court — the Court’s decision-making will improve and, perhaps then, the public will trust the Supreme Court more. Until then, our coalition will keep fighting for a Supreme Court that lives up to the promise of equal justice under law.

Samantha Cyrulnik-Dercher is the fair courts manager at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.