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Trump nominates Barrett for US Supreme Court

by Lisa Keen

President Donald Trump introduced Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee to replace the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo: Courtesy Yahoo News
President Donald Trump introduced Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee to replace the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo: Courtesy Yahoo News  

President Donald Trump announced Saturday (September 26) his nominee to replace U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and, as expected, it is a jurist LGBTQ groups are expected to vehemently oppose.

In a crowded outdoor event at the White House with few people wearing masks, Trump said his nominee, federal appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett, would receive a "very quick" confirmation.

Does this spell doom for existing protections for LGBTQ people under the law? Does it close the door to the Supreme Court for any future LGBTQ plaintiffs seeking their rights under the constitution? LGBTQ legal experts are both deeply concerned and somewhat confident.

Barrett, 48, comes to the nomination after serving just three years the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where she did not weigh in on any LGBTQ-related cases. However, in her years prior to that, as a professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Law, she signed onto a letter from Catholic Women supporting the church's views on various issues, including that "marriage and family [are] founded on the indissoluble commitment of a man and a woman."

During her 2017 confirmation process for the federal bench, one senator asked Barrett, via written questionnaire, how she could assure members of the LGBT community that she is committed to rendering decisions impartially and without bias or prejudice?

Barrett responded: "I do not think it lawful for a judge to impose personal opinions, from whatever source they derive, upon the law. If confirmed, I will apply the law faithfully and impartially in accordance with the judicial oath."

"Do you agree that the church's view regarding marriage as a union between a man and a woman is irrelevant to the legal question of the right of same-sex couples to marry?" asked Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) in the questionnaire.

Barrett responded with one word: "Yes."

She then repeatedly stated that several important LGBTQ decisions at the Supreme Court were "binding precedent that I will faithfully follow if confirmed." They included Obergefell v. Hodges, U.S. v. Windsor, and Lawrence v. Texas.

LGBTQ groups opposed Barrett's nomination then. They said her views on civil rights issues were "fundamentally at odds with the notion that LGBTQ people are entitled to equality, liberty, justice and dignity under the law."

In a letter to then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), 27 national and state LGBTQ groups said in 2017 that they were concerned that Barrett's "religiously-infused moral beliefs would inform her judicial decision-making" on issues of specific interest to LGBTQ people. And they expressed alarm that Barrett had delivered a paid speech to the "most extreme anti-LGBTQ legal organization in the United States" (the Alliance Defending Freedom).

Reaction to high court pick
In reaction to news that Trump would nominate Barrett to U.S. Supreme Court, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund issued a statement, saying, "Barrett will unleash a Supreme Court majority that is hostile to all of our basic civil rights, and the impact will be felt for decades."

In the coming U.S. Supreme Court session, the court is set to hear Fulton v. Philadelphia, a case in which a Catholic adoption service wants the court to declare that it has a First Amendment right to violate a Philadelphia law against sexual orientation discrimination. And a Virginia school district is expected to appeal its loss in a case that tests whether Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education — prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

There is some optimism still around the Title IX case. That's because, in June, a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act — which prohibits job discrimination on the basis of sex — also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That ruling, Bostock v. Clayton County, is expected to serve as precedent for the Title IX litigation, too.

While Ginsburg is gone now from that 6-3 Bostock majority, Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined the majority opinion, and Justice Neil Gorsuch, who authored it, are still there.

And "because Justice Gorsuch's opinion for the court was so relentlessly textual," said Stanford University Professor Pamela Karlan, who successfully argued the case for the gay employee in Bostock, "I don't see the court coming out the other way on Title IX's coverage."

Jon Davidson, former legal director for Lambda Legal and current chief counsel for Freedom for All Americans, agrees.

"That majority [in Bostock] also should agree that other federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination (including laws barring sex discrimination in education, housing, and credit) encompass discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity because the Supreme Court's decision [in Bostock] did not rest on anything unique to the federal employment nondiscrimination, but rather on the correct conclusion that, as a general matter, one cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity without discriminating based on sex."

But Both Karlan and Davidson expressed concern for what the Supreme Court didn't rule on last session: accommodating religious employers, such as the one in the Philadelphia case, set for oral argument November 4.

"The outcome could have broad implications for the application of nondiscrimination laws and government policies around the country," said Davidson.

Davidson said he doesn't think existing marriages of same-sex couples are at risk.

"Those who married same-sex partners after the Obergefell decision did so in compliance with the law at the time and have strong due process rights in not having those lawful marriages dissolved against their will," said Davidson. "Whether a new justice will respect the precedent of Obergefell going forward, however, is of course of concern."

But Jenny Pizer, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, noted that, even with the marriage ruling in favor of same-sex couples, "we still have had to continue fighting for family equality for LGBTQ people and their children."

"For example, we are in court now fighting for two married same-sex couples whose daughters are being denied citizenship by the Trump administration even though the law is explicit that their American citizen parents' being married entitles them to citizenship," said Pizer.

And Barrett, said Pizer, "has been outspoken in her belief that same-sex couples do not have the same fundamental constitutional right to marry that different-sex couples have, and that the marriages of same-sex couples do not deserve legal respect."

Barrett also wrote a law review article arguing that, while all Supreme Court decisions serve as precedent for lower court decisions and subsequent Supreme Court decisions, some are "super precedents" and others are more susceptible to change. Barrett's super-precedent theory, said Pizer, "seems designed to create room for reconsidering and reversing precedents that justices do not consider 'super.'"

Barrett is Trump's third opportunity to select a Supreme Court justice. He previously nominated, and the Senate confirmed, two other federal appeals court judges to the Supreme Court: Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Gorsuch's nomination was marred by the controversy that ensued when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) refused to give consideration to then-President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, even though Obama still had 11 months to go in his second term. McConnell left the seat open until after the 2016 presidential election and, because Trump won that election, the Republican president was given the opportunity to appoint the seat left open by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.

Kavanaugh's confirmation was marred by controversy surrounding accusations that emerged following his nomination that he had sexually assaulted women. He denied those accusations, and the Republican-controlled Senate approved his nomination.

The Senate approved Gorsuch's nomination by a vote of 54-45; it approved Kavanaugh by 50-48.

Barrett's nomination also begins in controversy: While McConnell claimed he couldn't advance Obama's nominee because it was a presidential election year, he has promised to rush through Barrett's nomination even though this, too, is a presidential election year.

McConnell has made clear he has to votes to confirm the nominee and that he intends to rush through that confirmation process ahead of the November 3 presidential election.

Trump said Saturday that Barrett "will defend the sacred principle of equal justice for citizens of every race, color, religion, and creed."

Barrett professed "love" for the United States Constitution and said she is "mindful" of the legacy of Ginsburg, whose seat she has been nominated to fill. Ginsburg died at age 87 on September 18, following a long struggle with cancer.

Barrett noted that Ginsburg was good friends with Scalia, for whom Barrett clerked, despite the fact that Ginsburg was one of the court's most liberal jurists and Scalia one of its most conservative.

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