Amy Coney Barrett and how we react to news
One of the most fascinating things about the Amy Coney Barrett hearings is how passionate people’s opinions are about a woman they knew nothing about a month ago. This makes sense for the political media pundits who make money for fiery on-air segments or online splicing of content, but why is the general public always so quick to fall for the excitement?
I’ve watched a decent amount of the hearings — though surely not more than half so far since the days are very long — and I’d recommend everyone watch as well. Replays are available online through most news outlets (here you can find them via C-SPAN).
As anyone who has watched full portions of the hearings and not chopped up social content knows, it’s not exactly as explosive and dramatic as parts of the media tries to convince us it is. Even the moments being shared for the sake of partisan excitement — like her lack of note taking or saying ‘sexual preference’ — were not nearly as exciting in the moment. They were actually quite subtle. The astute observer might have known these moments would work well as shareable political soundbites, but they were subtle and innocuous when they happened.
If there’s anything recent history has actually taught us about Supreme Court nominations — especially from the ‘conservative’ side — it’s that Justices rarely end up being as conservative as liberal partisan attacks suggest, and they’re also rarely as conservative as conservative partisan hopefuls want them to be.
These are real people. They interpret cases much differently when they’re working and deliberating in the highest legal body in the land. The words ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ likely aren’t even the most useful to apply in terms of how we understand Justices. We would be better suited to see the arguments they engage in as connected to ‘Originalism,’ ‘Textualism,’ or ‘Living Constitution’ theories.
We do all know of course that part of the strong reaction to Barrett is because of the politicization of the court and the politics of a nomination happening so close to an upcoming election. The former shouldn’t have become political theater (look back to Robert Bork for some insight on why it did), and the latter we can’t escape.
But even if the politics of the nomination and its subsequent emotions are too embedded in it to be removed from the conversation, we can at least withhold our judgment from being swayed by what non-legal pundits and political influencers have to say about cases they probably haven’t read, nor understand. When it comes to the law of the United States, our cases, clauses, precedents, and interpretations are complicated, technical, and nuanced. All it takes is a quick viewing of a Quimbee or Khan Academy video to realize that. And we also have to remember that Justices unanimously agree very often. Those cases just don’t make for good headlines.
Anything from here until Barret is confirmed and works on her first case — or if she’s not confirmed at all — is speculation. It’s speculation for the sake of partisan politics and the upcoming election cycle. And even though it might be fun to hop inside the partisan-express, it isn’t actually that useful for dialogue or an understanding of the Supreme Court and the legal decisions they make.
There’s also much to be redeemed from the Coney Barrett hearings. This is a highly successful American woman. She’s performing fabulously under-pressure, staying calm and collected, and she’s even knocking it out of the park via public relations 101 by not answering hypothetical questions. (And legal 101 by not answering questions related to cases she may work on.)
As with all things that brush against political topics, I know people will have their takes. But please let us remember, the point of the court shouldn’t be for it to be politicized, and most of us are not legal experts. We really don’t have much context for the nuance and complexity of the law, as unexciting as that reality is.