Earlier this year, 7th Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett spoke to The Heritage Foundation’s “SCOTUS 101” podcast about what it was like clerking for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, teaching at Notre Dame Law School, and balancing her career with raising seven kids.
Barrett, whose Catholic faith came under attack during her Senate confirmation hearing in 2017, also shares her views on religion and the law. Plus, she explains why she has a sign that reads “Judge Like a Champion Today” in her chambers, and why if she could converse with any Supreme Court justice, she’d pick Sandra Day O’Connor or John Marshall.
Listen to the interview, or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Elizabeth Slattery: We’re delighted to have Amy Coney Barrett in the studio with us today. Judge Barrett is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. Welcome to “SCOTUS 101.”
Amy Coney Barrett: Thank you for having me.
Slattery: So let’s start off with your early career. Following law school, you clerked for Judge [Laurence] Silberman on the D.C. Circuit. So what were some of the highlights of that clerkship?
Barrett: Oh, it was a great job. And I learned so much from Judge Silberman. Now, that was my first job out of law school, so I started in July after having graduated in May, so I was definitely pretty green and clerking for a formidable judge, who was as smart as Judge Silberman, really taught me a lot.
I think I’ve always been tough. Judge Silberman definitely made me tougher. I mean, here you are a brand new baby lawyer and you’re having to go back and forth about cases with someone who’s very experienced. He is formidable. He really can grasp issues in cases very clearly and write clearly and quickly. I mean, he can get his reasoning to paper. So that was just a great experience.
And I have to say, he spent time as the undersecretary of labor earlier in his career in the Labor Cafeteria is close to the D.C. Circuit. So he really taught me the importance of being a mentor and some of that happened through the many lunches he liked to take us to at the Labor Cafeteria where I would not call the food a highlight, but that conversation was. He also liked the old AB Pizza, and that was a lot more fun from the menu side of things.
So Judge Silberman, he sat behind me at my confirmation hearing and he swore me in at my investiture ceremony. So he’s been a very important mentor in my life.
Bates: And then you went on to clerk at the Supreme Court for Justice [Antonin] Scalia. So can you tell us a little about your time in his chambers?
Barrett: Yes. So, that is trial by fire. You get thrown in and it’s an overwhelming amount of work. You’re feeling your way at first. Justice Scalia participated in the cert pool, so you start in the summer and you’re thrown into writing memos that you know will be circulated.
At the time, eight of the nine justices were in the cert pool. So it’s a little stressful when you realize you’re writing things that eight Supreme Court justices are going to be reading.
And then when the merits cases started in October, those are the hardest cases. They’re there because they’re hard enough that they’ve divided lower courts, so those were very challenging.
And the way Justice Scalia ran his chambers is we all had to be prepared to discuss all the cases. So we would have a conference before argument where the four of us would be in his office. And then you’re just going toe-to-toe. Everybody’s saying what they think.
Justice Scalia, obviously, very quick witted, brilliant, and he didn’t want you to agree with him. He wanted you to say what you thought. And so disagreeing with him as I sometimes did and pushing back and going back and forth with someone like Justice Scalia really taught me a lot.
It taught me a lot about oral advocacy and being articulate and who better to learn how to write under than someone who was as great a writer as he was. So it was a great year.
Barrett: And I should say, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that in both years, another highlight was the great co-clerks that I had.
Bates: Before we move on, how did the SCOTUS cafeteria compare to the Labor Department’s?
Barrett: Better. But I mean, it’s not a place that I choose for a date night.
Slattery: Well, Tiffany and I have plans to go over and check out the new menu item, which is pizza, at the Supreme Court Cafeteria at some point.
Barrett: Yes. And I haven’t been there since the newer justices have made improvements, so.
Slattery: So then after your clerkships, you worked at a big firm for a few years and then spent the next 15 or so years teaching at Notre Dame Law School where you [are] still teaching. So what are some of your favorite classes to teach?
Barrett: So, I taught a lot of classes. I’ve been a professor for a long time, so I’ve taught civil procedure and federal courts and constitutional law, seminar in statutory interpretation, one on constitutional theory, and I teach evidence. And I really love teaching all of them for different reasons.
My scholarship focused primarily on public law. So teaching federal courts and constitutional law and my seminars in interpretation, those were my primary areas of scholarly interests and they’re easy to get students engaged in. Those are the kinds of subjects that students are really eager to engage with. So I loved teaching those classes.
I love teaching civil procedure too. That is a different challenge. First year, first semester, students don’t always understand why civil procedure is so important when it seems so boring. Some of my teaching evaluations at the end of civil procedure would say things like, “Wow, I’m so impressed you could make such a boring subject so interesting,” which I counted as a triumph.
But it’s really fun to teach first semester, first year students and be one of their introductions to law school. And civil procedure is something that’s a day-in, day-out bread of the litigator, as Tiffany, now you’re at a law firm, I’m sure you’re seeing that.
Evidence I like teaching, but that was a surprise. I offered to teach evidence because we needed it. Nobody was teaching it at the time, so I did it to help out and it’s totally different than the other classes that I teach. And it was a lot of fun because I could use film clips and problems, and I would have the students argue motions in class.
So, I continue to teach. I teach my two seminars and it’s not practical because of my sitting schedule in Chicago to have class on more than one day in a week. So I can’t teach any of the big classes anymore, but I miss it. I love the big classes as well as the seminars.
Bates: That’s great. And you’ve lived in South Bend, Indiana, for a number of years now. What are some of your favorite spots around town?
Barrett: Well, Notre Dame obviously looms large in South Bend and we just live three blocks from campus. So, in the summer, that’s where I go running. I go running on campus and they’re two really beautiful lakes on campus that I go running around and the football season, our football Saturdays are spent tailgating.
We walk up and we, with some friends of ours for many years, we had a antique vintage firetruck that we painted green. And we would have tailgates where all the kids could be running around playing football out on the green.
So, we at one point considered moving to a neighborhood a little farther from campus and our kids really rebelled because they love the proximity to campus too.
One thing about South Bend that people might not know who haven’t been there before is that it’s actually very close to Michigan. And so Lake Michigan and the Michigan beach towns are just a little more than a half an hour away.
So my family and I like going up in the summer to the beaches, or there are fun restaurants in the little beach towns. One of the jokes around Notre Dame is that if Father [Edward] Sorin, who’s the founder of the university, had just kept traveling a little farther north, the geography would have been better.
Bates: As a Michigander, I can confirm that.
Slattery: So your husband is also a lawyer, no slouch. He’s a former assistant U.S. attorney, and now he’s at a firm and he also teaches at Notre Dame. So can you tell me how have you and your husband balanced raising seven children with your very busy careers?
Barrett: Well, part of the reason is my very wonderful husband. I mean, we are totally a team and we share the responsibility. We divide up doctor’s appointments and orthodontist appointments and dentist appointments. There’s obviously a lot to do, but in no sense do I bear the lion’s share of it. So his being so willing to help has really made it all possible.
And sometimes when people hear that we have seven kids, they imagine seven infants, but obviously there is, thank goodness, an age spread. Our oldest was in college and our youngest is in second grade.
So we have a range and we got another driver in the house on Saturday. We were without a driver for a while when our oldest daughter left home. And I can tell you, it is a cause for celebration in a busy family when you have someone else who can help drive kids to school.
So, South Bend, we have many, many friends. It’s a very warm community and a great place to raise a family. So we have carpooling help. I mean, it’s true, my husband once described my Google Calendar as a Cubist painting because it has so many different colors and blocks on it. His looks like that too. So it’s definitely busy, but we’ve been fortunate to have good child care and good friends.
Slattery: That’s wonderful. I have two kids and my Google Calendar is starting to take on many different colors as well.
Bates: So now that you’re a judge on the 7th Circuit, how has the transition been from the academic world to the bench?
Barrett: Well, in some ways, the academic world is good preparation for what I do now because academics spend a lot of their time reading and writing. And that’s the way that I spend the bulk of my days now, is reading and researching and writing.
As an academic, I spent a lot of time mentoring students, and now I have a smaller group. I have my four law clerks. So in many respects, there are things that are the same, but obviously, there’s a big difference between writing law review articles and writing judicial opinions.
As a law professor, I sometimes wondered whether anyone read or cared about any of the articles that I published in law reviews. But when I write a judicial opinion, I know that there are at least two people, the litigants, who will care very much what I write. And I’m keenly aware that I’m exercising the judicial power of the United States, and it’s a heavy responsibility and that’s quite different.
Being a public servant is quite different than being a private citizen, even engaged in the service of teaching students. So I think the responsibility is very different. That was a very big transition.
Slattery: Shifting gears a bit, your faith has been a subject of quite a bit of scrutiny. It came up during your confirmation hearing, and you said that a judge may never subvert the law or twist it in any way to match the judge’s convictions. You sort of became a meme with the “dogma live loudly.” So could you talk a little bit about how judges handle any conflicts between their faith and what the job requires?
Barrett: Well, the statement that you just quoted from my confirmation hearing is what I believe and it’s been my consistent position ever since I was a law student when I wrote with my professor the law review article that got so much scrutiny during my confirmation process.
I don’t think that faith should influence the way a judge decides cases at all. As I said, I don’t think that a judge should twist the law to bring it into line or to help it match in any way the judge’s own convictions. And that’s true, whether they derive from faith or, everyone has convictions, everyone has beliefs. That’s not unique to people who have faith.
And so somehow people seem to think that I said the opposite of what I said, but I think that one of the most important responsibilities of a judge is to put their personal preferences and their personal beliefs aside because our responsibility is to adhere to the rule of law.
Bates: Switching gears again, is there anything you like to do with your clerks? I’ve heard some chambers have a pancake eating contest or ping pong matches, field trips to historic sites. Is there anything like that in the Barrett chambers?
Barrett: Well, I’m only on my third batch of clerks, so it might be early to call anything a tradition, but I can tell you some of the things that we’ve enjoyed doing.
So, I’m from New Orleans, even though I’ve been living in Indiana for 15 or 16 years now. And I got this idea from Justice Scalia. During the Scalia clerkship, he would always have us over to his home for dinner once during the clerkship year and we all really enjoyed that and we looked forward to getting to know him in a different setting. And so that is something that I have done and will continue to do with my clerks.
And I cook them a New Orleans meal. So depending on what seafood Jesse and I have been able to bring back from New Orleans and dietary restrictions with the clerks and their partners, my staples are gumbo and red beans and rice and jambalaya and bread pudding soufflé, one of our favorites.
So we do that and then we’ve done some activities this year. We had a new one, we went and shot sporting clays at a range that was up in Michigan. And that was so fun.
We really enjoyed that and so we’re going to go again when the weather warms up. It’s not really sporting clays weather right now in South Bend or Michigan. So we’re going to do that again in the spring or summer when it warms up.
I would say, other than that, in my chambers, I am located in a bankruptcy court because that’s where they had space for me. And while Court of Appeals judges don’t need their own courtrooms, bankruptcy judges do. So I have a courtroom in my chambers and that is a place where we eat lunch there regularly.
I try to eat with the clerks at least once a week. And they eat in there most days, except when they go out on Taco Tuesdays to the Mexican grocery store and restaurant that’s nearby chambers. So I think just spending time with clerks in chambers, trying to have lunch with them, and some of our outings like that.
Slattery: You mentioned you’re a runner. Do clerks ever run with you?
Barrett: They do not. So, I am not as brave as Judge [Thomas] Hardiman to do marathon training with my law clerk. So no, they don’t.
Slattery: Do you have anything in your chambers that reflects your personality or where you’re from?
Barrett: Well, let’s see. So, I mentioned that in the courtroom we have a lot of space, and one of the things that we have been able to put in there because we have so much space is a foosball table that’s on loan from my children for chambers. This batch of clerks does not play it too much. The last group of clerks enjoyed it more.
And then in chambers, Notre Dame fans will be familiar with the blue and gold sign that says, “Play like a champion today.” It hangs in the staircase that the football players run through when they go up onto the field and they all tap it as they go by.
And my friend, Judge [Don] Willett on the 5th Circuit, sent me a gold and blue sign that says, “Judge like a champion today.” And so I have that hanging up in chambers and it’s a splash of Judge Willett fun and humor in a setting that’s otherwise pretty formal.
And I will say about the courtroom, my children love to come, not just to visit their foosball table, but they love climbing up on the bench. And their father was a prosecutor for many years, they like to write out indictments for one another. I will sometimes find legal pads with the indictments for crimes that they’ve made up that the others have committed on the bench. So that’s been an amusing part of chambers.
Bates: That’s great. So one final question, if you could have a conversation with any Supreme Court justice, living or dead, who would you pick and what would you talk about?
Barrett: It is hard to narrow down because there are obviously so many men and women who have served on the court who would be interesting to talk to, but I recently read Evan Thomas’ excellent biography of Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor, so I will say Justice O’Connor.
I have met Justice O’Connor before, but not in this kind of setting that you’re envisioning where you get to sit down and really talk to her, and who wouldn’t? And certainly what woman wouldn’t want to hear her talk about the stories of breaking in, not just to among the brethren on the Supreme Court, but also into the legal profession?
I thought the Thomas biography did such a nice job of talking about her personal life and experiences. Some judicial biographies are very heavy on describing the opinions, and reading more about her experience and her life just made me agree to get to know her better.
It also gave me a sense of gratitude because my experience professionally has been so different than hers. Remember, she could only get hired as a secretary, even after graduating at the top of her class. And I’m the first woman from Indiana to sit on the 7th Circuit in one of the Indiana seats. And that’s really hardly worth notice because nobody really thinks it’s odd to have a woman on the court.
People don’t bat an eye when it’s three women from the 7th Circuit who were on a panel, and that’s because of women like Justice O’Connor.
But I have to add, so, I know that it is against your rules to say John Marshall, but in the spirit of current events I recently learned … so, I knew that he was the chief during the impeachment of Justice [Samuel] Chase, but I did not know until recently that he actually testified in the Senate during the impeachment trial because he had overheard a conversation between Justice Chase and Justice Bushrod Washington that was relevant.
So he had to send a deposition to the House during the investigation, and he testified in the trial. And then remember on the circuit, he also presided over the trial for treason of Aaron Burr. So thinking about how he established an independent judiciary when he navigated through those kinds of stressful and fraught partisan times, that would be something worth hearing about. In addition, obviously, to all the other interesting things you can talk to John Marshall about.
Slattery: Yeah, that’s fascinating. I had not heard that about Chief Justice Marshall, so we’ll allow that answer to stand.
Barrett: Thank you.
Bates: Well, Judge Barrett, thank you so much for joining us.
Barrett: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
This article has been corrected to reflect Tiffany Bates asking some of the questions.