LAKE GENEVA, Wis. — Justice Amy Coney Barrett said Monday that public scrutiny of the Supreme Court is hardly new and should be welcomed, and that she has developed a “thick skin” about criticism of her role as one of the newest justices.
“With everything, there can be good and bad,” Barrett said at a conference of judges and lawyers. “With the court being in the news, to the extent that it engages people with the work of the court, and paying attention to the court and knowing what the courts do and what the Constitution has to say, that’s a positive development.”
The downside, she said, comes if there is a misperception about the court’s work or if there is the sense that it has “let people down.”
“Justices and all judges are public figures, and public criticism kind of comes with the job,” she said, noting that just a few years ago she was a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, far from the public eye. “But I’ve been at it for a couple of years now and I’ve acquired a thick skin, and I think that’s what public figures have to do; I think that’s what all judges have to do.”
Barrett, 51, was President Donald Trump’s third successful nominee to the high court, confirmed in the fall of 2020. Her appointment solidified a six-justice conservative majority that has quickly moved the court to the right, highlighted by the decision last year to overturn the guarantee of abortion rights the court established 50 years earlier in Roe v. Wade.
Barrett was addressing the Seventh Circuit Judicial Conference. She was gently interviewed by Diane S. Sykes, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago and a former colleague. Sykes was also on Trump’s list of candidates for the Supreme Court.
Sykes did not ask about the court’s recent decisions or about ethics controversies that have dogged the justices.
Criticism mostly concerns expensive trips taken years ago by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., underwritten by wealthy business executives and not disclosed in required annual financial reports. The two justices have said they did not believe they needed to disclose the travel. But Senate Democrats have backed legislation to impose disclosure rules on the court as strict as those that apply to members of the House and Senate.
Whether Congress has the authority to impose a specific code of ethics on the Supreme Court has divided Democrats and Republicans, constitutional experts and the justices themselves. Some have been more forthcoming than others.
Alito earlier this summer was emphatic in an interview with a lawyer and editorial writer in the Wall Street Journal about Congress’s role. “I know this is a controversial view, but I’m willing to say it,” Alito said. “No provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court — period.”
Asked whether other justices agree, Alito replied: “I don’t know that any of my colleagues have spoken about it publicly, so I don’t think I should say. But I think it is something we have all thought about.”
Justice Elena Kagan wasn’t nearly as definitive when asked at a conference for the 9th Circuit in Portland, Ore. “It just can’t be that the court is the only institution that is somehow not subject to any checks and balances from anybody else,” she said, adding, “I mean, we are not imperial.”
But she said it would be better if the court handled the ethics issue on its own.
Barrett was not asked her opinion, but she resisted the notion that the court has become “acrimonious.”
She said a longtime family friend visiting her chambers recently asked her, “Do you hate each other?”
“I actually get asked that question a lot,” she continued. She said there are warm relations on the court, despite the high-profile dissents and disagreements.
“Someone described to me once the relationships of justices on the court being like a marriage in which there’s no possibility of divorce,” she said. The justices don’t pick each other, but they have to learn to live with each other, she said.
When she was chosen after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court’s term had already started. Her new colleagues bestowed “kindness after kindness” to help her, Barrett said.
Justice Neil M. Gorsuch sent his staff to help until her own clerks were on board. And she said Justice Sonia Sotomayor sent Barrett’s husband, Jesse, back to South Bend, Ind., with Halloween candy chosen for each of her children.