Professor Amy Coney Barrett – Nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

The Seventh Circuit is known for attracting academics.  Three of its most prominent judges, Richard Posner, Frank Easterbrook, and Diane Wood, served as law professors before being elevated to the bench.  If confirmed, Prof. Amy Coney Barrett will continue that trend.

History of the Seat

Barrett has been nominated for an Indiana seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  This seat opened in February 2015 with the retirement of Judge John Daniel Tinder.[1]  Even though Tinder’s plans were leaked almost a year before his actual retirement,[2] the Obama Administration did not submit a nominee to the Senate until January 2016, when Myra Selby, a former justice on the Indiana Supreme Court, was nominated.[3] 

While Selby’s nomination was strongly supported by Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) opposed the nomination, arguing that the nominee should be selected by a bipartisan commission for the state.[4]  With Coats declining to return a blue slip, the Senate Judiciary Committee did not take any action on Selby’s nomination, and it was returned unconfirmed at the end of the 114th Congress.  As such, the vacancy was left open for Trump to fill.

Background

Barrett was born as Amy Vivian Coney on Jan. 28, 1972 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  After getting a B.A. from Rhodes College, Barrett attended Notre Dame Law School, where she was executive editor of the Notre Dame Law Review.  After graudating from law school, Barrett clerked for Judge Lawrence Silberman on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and obtained a prestigious Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Antonin Scalia.  

After her clerkship, Barrett joined the D.C. office of Miller, Cassidy, Larocca & Lewin LLP, which merged into Baker Botts LLP.  While at Baker, Barrett was a part of the legal team representing then-Governor George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore.  

As an attorney at Baker, Barrett started working as an adjunct faculty member at the George Washington University Law School, co-teaching a class with fellow Baker attorney John Elwood (himself a distinguished Supreme Court practitioner).  Shortly after, Barrett joined the Law School as a John H. Olin Fellow in Law.  In 2002, Barrett moved to become a Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School, her alma mater.  Other than a short stint as a Visiting Associate Professor of Law at the University of Virginia, Barrett has served at Notre Dame ever since.  

In February 2017, Barrett was contacted by the Office of Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), and asked about her interest in a Seventh Circuit opening.  After confirming her interest, Barrett completed an application, met with the Senator, the White House and the Department of Justice.[5]  On May 8, President Trump formally nominated Barrett to the Seventh Circuit.[6]

Legal Practice

Because Barrett has spent the vast majority of her professional life as a law professor, she has relatively little experience in litigation.  During her two years at Baker Botts, Barrett worked on cases in the trial and appellate courts, including the second-chairing of an accounting malpractice case in Virginia state court.[7]  As noted earlier, Barrett was also part of the legal team in Bush v. Gore.  

In 1999, Barrett assisted the appellate counsel for two individuals convicted of conspiracy to defraud several government agencies.[8]  Barrett, working with other attorneys, raised several challenges to the convictions and sentence, including challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, and the jury instructions.  Ultimately, the Second Circuit affirmed the convictions and the sentences.[9]

In 2000, Barrett was part of the legal team representing the National Council of Resistance of Iran in challenging their designation as a “foreign terrorist organization” by the State Department.[10]  The D.C. Circuit sided with Barrett, holding that the designation violated the Council’s due process rights, reversing and remanding.[11]  The designation was eventually lifted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012.[12]

Writings

As a law professor, Barrett has written exhaustively on a range of legal issues, often taking legal positions that call into question established legal doctrines.  For example, in one article, Barrett argues that the traditionally held view of the Supreme Court’s supervisory power over lower courts is flawed.[13]  In her confirmation, Barrett is particularly likely to face questions about her writings challenging the principle of stare decisis.

The legal doctrine of stare decisis is the foundation of a common law system.  The doctrine asks courts to generally follow the precedent made by previous courts, even where a judge may disagree with the previous outcome.  As Justice Louis Brandeis once noted, “it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right.”[14]  While stare decisis is not inflexible (Brandeis goes on to note that courts have an obligation to reverse incorrect constitutional rulings),[15] judges generally will follow rulings from previous panels, even where they might have ruled differently.[16]

For her part, Barrett has repeatedly questioned stare decisis, and whether the doctrine should be applied as broadly as it is.  In a 2013 article, Barrett argued that a weakened form of stare decisis in constitutional cases helps promote pluralism on the Supreme Court and mitigates disagreements.[17]

Most notably, in 2003, Barrett published an article in the University of Colorado Law Review calling into question the application of stare decisis in certain cases.  The article, titled Stare Decisis and Due Process, posits that, in many instances, the application of stare decisis violates the due process rights of litigants, as it denies them the opportunity to litigate the merits of their own claim.[18]  Specifically, Barrett argues that, just as the due process clause limits the application of issue preclusion (or collateral estoppel), it should similarly limit the application of stare decisis.[19]  Barrett notes that a more flexible application of stare decisis is not only consistent with history, but would not impair the appropriate value of precedent.[20]  In other words, as Barrett notes, she suggests using precedent in a way analogous to the way it is used in civil law systems, as a “shortcut” in figuring out how to reach a decision.[21]

Barrett also questions stare decisis in the statutory context in a separate article, where she urges that the doctrine is “an ill fit in the inferior courts.”[22]

Overall Assessment

As an academic, Barrett is paid to push the envelope on legal thought and theory.  While this makes her a prolific and talented writer, it leaves little sign of how she would rule on the bench.  Barrett’s experience in litigation is fairly limited.  By her own admission, Barrett has never tried a case as first chair, never argued an appeal, and never been counsel of record in an appellate case.  This may cause critics to suggest that she is unqualified for the federal bench.

On the other hand, Barrett’s academic credentials are beyond question.  Her clerkships to two legal luminaries, Judge Silberman and Justice Scalia, are enough to put to rest any questions about her legal ability.  While she may lack litigation experience, the Seventh Circuit is full of former academics who have distinguished themselves on the bench.

A bigger question is Barrett’s commitment to following precedent that she disagrees with.  Given her repeated questioning of stare decisis, it is reasonable to expect Senators to explore her willingness to abide by it.  

Another point which may hurt Barrett is her likely status as a future Supreme Court nominee.  Barrett is young (only 45), a woman, and has impeccable academic credentials.  It remains to be seen if Democrats will attempt to handicap her ascent by attacking her appellate confirmation.  

Provided Barrett manages to allay concerns about her experience and her views on precedent, there is little reason to oppose her nomination.  In all likelihood, Barrett will avoid the fate of Myra Selby and be confirmed in due course to the Seventh Circuit.


[1] Dave Stafford, Tinder Departs 7th Circuit, The Indiana Lawyer, July 29, 2015, http://www.theindianalawyer.com/tinder-departs-7th-circuit/PARAMS/article/37799.

[2] Dave Stafford, Judge Tinder’s Retirement Plans Leaked, The Indiana Lawyer, Mar. 12, 2014, http://www.theindianalawyer.com/judge-tinders-retirement-plans-leaked/PARAMS/article/33639.  

[3] Press Release, White House Archives, President Obama Nominates Two to Serve on the United States Court of Appeals (January 12, 2016) (on file at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office).  

[4] Press Release, Office of Sen. Dan Coats, Coats Responds to President’s Nominations for Indiana Judicial Vacancies (Jan. 12, 2016) (on file at www.legistorm.com).  

[5] There are no indications of any meetings or consultations with Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN).

[6] Press Release, White House, President Donald J. Trump Announced Judicial Candidate Nominations (May 8, 2017) (on file at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office).

[7] Tassi Drywall Construction Co., Inc. v. Turner Jones & Assoc., P.C. et al., No. L190384 (Va. Cir. Ct.).

[8] United States v. Berger, 224 F.3d 107 (2d Cir. 2000).

[9] Id. at 111.

[10] Nat’l Council of Resistance of Iran v. Dep’t of State, 251 F.3d 192 (D.C. Cir. 2001).

[11] Id.

[12] Shane Scott, Iranian Dissidents Convince U.S. to Drop Terrorist Label, N.Y. Times, Sept. 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/22/world/middleeast/iranian-opposition-group-mek-wins-removal-from-us-terrorist-list.html.

[13] Amy Coney Barrett, The Supervisory Power of the Supreme Court, 106 Colum. L. Rev. 324 (2006).

[14] Burnet v. Coronodo Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 405 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting).

[15] Id. at 407.

[16] See, e.g., United States Inter. Revenue Serv. v. Osborne, 76 F.3d 306 (9th Cir. 1996).  

[17] Amy Coney Barrett, Symposium: Constitutional Foundation: Precedent and Jurisprudential Disagreement, 91 Tex. L. Rev. 1711, 1737 (2013).

[18] Amy Coney Barrett, Stare Decisis and Due Process, 74 U. Colo. L. Rev. 1011 (2003).

[19] See id. at 1035.

[20] Id. at 1074 (“To the extent, however, that precedent is well-established in a court of appeals, it is unlikely that many litigants would press for overruling it, even with a flexible system of stare decisis in place.”).

[21] Id. at 1069.

[22] Amy Coney Barrett, Statutory Stare Decisis in the Courts of Appeals, 73 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 317, 351 (2005).

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  1. Pingback: The Age Question | The Vetting Room

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