WASHINGTON – Bringing it to the real world, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., plowed new ground at Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Tuesday when he asked the mother of two Black children about the impact of George Floyd’s death.
Barrett, guarded in her answers until this point, gave a candid reply.
In May, Floyd, a Black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him down with a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes. His death sparked a new chapter of racial reckoning in the U.S.
Barrett told Durbin after Floyd died she discussed with daughter Vivian, who is Black, “that there would be a risk to her brother or the sons she might have one day, of, that kind of brutality.”
Democrats know they are powerless to block the confirmation of Barrett, who President Donald Trump tapped for the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. Three years later, days after the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump nominated Barrett, the ideological opposite of Ginsburg, to fill her seat.
What Durbin has been doing at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings – and in a private call last week – is to talk to Barrett about the impact Supreme Court decisions have on real people, bringing up race, guns used for crimes in Chicago traced to Indiana and Mississippi, and the crucial need for health care coverage.
Barrett, a former Notre Dame Law School professor, is known for her conservatism. She shared with her mentor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, her belief in originalism and textualism.
That is, she explained on Tuesday, interpreting the Constitution with the meaning the writers had when it was ratified and analyzing a statute using only the text.
Barrett mainly works and lives in South Bend, Ind., with her husband Jesse and seven children. When she commutes to Chicago for court business, she stays at the Union League Club, she said in her Senate questionnaire, because it is near the Dirksen Federal Building in the Loop.
Two of her children are adopted; Vivian and John Peter are natives of Haiti.
They will have to worry about being stopped for driving while Black or suffer other race-based indignities never experienced by their white parents and siblings.
If Barrett is confirmed, her family will visit her in a building where, in the entire history of our nation, only two Black justices served, Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas; one Hispanic, Sonia Sotomayor; and so far, only four women, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Sandra Day O’Connor. If confirmed, Barrett will be only the fifth female justice.
Durbin asked Barrett if she saw the Floyd video and what impact it had on her.
Barrett replied: “Senator, as you might imagine, given that I have two Black children, that was very, very personal for my family.
“Jesse was with the boys on a camping trip out in South Dakota, so I was there, and my 17-year-old daughter Vivian, who was adopted from Haiti, all of this was erupting. It was very difficult for her. We wept together in my room. And then it was also difficult for Juliet, who is 10. I had to try to explain some of this to them.
“My children, to this point in their lives, have had the benefit of growing up in a cocoon where they have not yet experienced hatred or violence.
“And for Vivian, to understand that there would be a risk to her brother or the sons she might have one day, of that kind of brutality, has been an ongoing conversation. It’s a difficult one for us, like it is for Americans all over the country.”
Durbin then asked: “As an originalist who obviously has a passion for history – I can’t imagine that you could separate the two – to reflect on the history of this country. Where are we today, when it comes to the issue of race?”
Barrett replied “Racism persists in our country.”
She snapped back into being guarded.
What to do to “make things better” are, she said, “policy questions. They’re hotly contested policy questions that have been in the news and discussed all summer.”
While she was “happy to discuss that the reaction our family had to the George Floyd video,” giving “broader statements” or “broader diagnoses about the problem of racism is kind of beyond what I’m capable of doing as a judge.”
“I would doubt that,” Durbin said. New ground plowed, he moved on.