Professor Carter Snead is one of the world’s leading experts on public bioethics at the University of Notre Dame. He is also a colleague of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, one of President Donald Trump’s finalists to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Snead joins The Daily Signal Podcast to talk about Barrett, her legal career, media attacks, and more.
We also cover these stories:
- Riots break out in Louisville, Kentucky, after a grand jury announces three felony charges of wanton endangerment against a former police detective in the Breonna Taylor case.
- President Donald Trump declines to directly answer loaded questions about what he will do if he loses reelection.
- Trump pays his respects to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as her body lies in repose just outside the doors of the Supreme Court.
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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by professor Carter Snead, one of the world’s leading experts on public bioethics at the University of Notre Dame and a colleague of Amy Coney Barrett, who is the front-runner to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Professor Snead, it’s great to have you with us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
Carter Snead: Great to join you.
Del Guidice: Can you start off by telling us just a little bit about how you know Judge Barrett?
Snead: Yes, I met Judge Barrett 16 years ago when I was applying for a faculty position at the University of Notre Dame. And I’d heard about her from a co-clerk.
I clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, and one of my co-clerks had gone to law school with her and was in her husband’s class. And he told me about this wonderful couple that we had to get to know when my family and I moved back to D.C. We never connected in D.C., but we did connect in 2004 when I went to Notre Dame’s campus for my interview for a job.
Del Guidice: As a friend of Judge Barrett’s, who’s known her for over 10 years, as you pointed out, can you talk a little bit about her, as your relationship to her, as a friend, in that capacity?
Snead: Yes, absolutely. Judge Barrett is the kind of person that makes you feel bad about yourself because she’s so extraordinary in so many different ways. And it’s not limited to her brilliance as a judge or her brilliance as a scholar or her extraordinary record as a teacher. …
You guys probably already know this, but she won Teacher of the Year three times, elected by the students themselves, to show you the esteem in which they hold her.
But as a friend, even, she makes you feel inferior because she’s so generous and she’s so humble and she’s so warm and fun and normal.
She and her husband are both extraordinary people, and we’re really fortunate to have them in our community. It’s a great, close-knit community here at Notre Dame, and whether it’s at tailgates or at their dinner parties for Mardi Gras, where Amy makes crawfish etouffee or jambalaya, they’re just a wonderful, wonderful feature of our circle of friends here.
Del Guidice: Actually, one of my next questions, professor Snead, was about her capacity as a teacher, winning that Teacher of the Year award three different times. Can you talk a little bit about her time teaching at Notre Dame and also just what her students have had to say about her?
Snead: Absolutely. She’s universally beloved by her students, especially the women students. They look up to her. She’s an extraordinary role model, a person that balances so many different things in her life. But she, because of her brilliance, is able to make complicated ideas very simple, because she’s so articulate. She’s able to make things clear in classrooms, in her lectures and instruction.
And because she’s so humane and kind, she puts students at ease, even though she’s so brilliant and so talented, she puts people at ease because she always puts the needs of other people, and that includes students, in front of her own, which is very unusual in the world of people who perform at the level that she does and all of the different areas that she works in.
Del Guidice: The Senate confirmed Judge Barrett to the Chicago-based U.S. Appeals Court for the 7th Circuit in 2017, and she made history there as the first and only woman from Indiana to hold a seat on that appeals court. Is there anything you’d like to share about her experience and expertise as a lawyer?
Snead: Yeah, so when she was nominated to the 7th Circuit, there was an extraordinary outpouring of support for her by her friends and colleagues from throughout her lifetime, but a couple of things really stood out.
One was a letter signed by every single person that clerked for the Supreme Court the term that she did. That includes folks that clerked in the chambers for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and for [Justice] Stephen Breyer. And they all signed a letter saying that she had extraordinary integrity, was the smartest person in the building, was very, very able.
And Noah Feldman, whom you may know, a Harvard law professor who knows Judge Barrett, wrote in 2018 when Justice Kennedy’s seat opened up that in his own judgment, she was arguably the smartest lawyer in the building back when they all clerked together on the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s amazing testimony from people … from across the ideological spectrum.
And as a judge, I think she’s been stellar as well. Someone put it really nicely the other day. They said, “Judge Barrett is the judge you would want to have if you didn’t know which side of the lawsuit you were going to be on, because you know that she is so fair-minded and so open that she’s going to get to the right answer.” And that really does capture her work as a jurist.
Del Guidice: We’ve talked a little bit about her teaching at Notre Dame. Can you talk a little bit about teaching as preparation for being a Supreme Court justice? You’re a professor yourself and you work in this capacity too, as a professor, so can you talk about her being prepared to work at the Supreme Court, potentially, and how teaching has potentially helped serve that purpose?
Snead: Sure, yeah. For one thing, obviously, the work of a teacher and the work of a scholar are integrated, so what we do as law professors is we read texts. We try to understand them. We try to discuss them with other people. We try to convey, and we try to figure out what they mean and what they’re saying, what rules and what doctrines they are discussing and how to understand those clearly, how to provide critiques of those, even within the frameworks in which those doctrines arise. And she is as good as it gets in that regard.
As a teacher, she participates in a scholarly community. We have faculty colloquia where we discuss each other’s works in progress, where we critique folks in their writing and offer assistance, and she’s an extraordinary participant in that setting as well.
But even specifically as to subject matters, her work focuses on the very questions that she would be grappling with as a Supreme Court justice and which she grapples with every day as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
She’s an expert on statutory interpretation. She teaches statutory interpretation. She’s an expert on constitutional interpretation, and she teaches that, and she writes about that.
You really couldn’t imagine a better preparation for the work that she has done now and the work that she might do going forward on the Supreme Court if you think about her preparation as a scholar and as a teacher.
Del Guidice: Professor Snead, you’ve mentioned some of her areas of expertise. Are there any particular cases Judge Barrett has been a part of that have particularly stood out to you?
Snead: No, I wouldn’t be able to single one out. I think that they’ve just been manifestly uniform in the sense that it’s clear that she’s a judge that is grappling with the question of what the law means and how it should apply. …
I’ll put it this way, I’ll put it in a sort of a negative form. I don’t know of any cases in which it’s not been perfectly clear that what she was doing was consistent with her limited view of what a judge should be and what a judge does, which is to say, read the statute, read the Constitution, try to discern its meaning while tethered to the text, history, and tradition, if we’re talking about the Constitution, and all other considerations don’t really enter into it.
Issues of ideology, issues of personal beliefs. That’s not on the table when you’re doing the work of a judge through the lens of Judge Barrett and through the lens of her mentor, Justice [Antonin] Scalia.
Del Guidice: Other than her obvious capacity as teaching, which we have talked about, are there other ways that Judge Barrett has mentored young people, especially young women, that you might want to highlight?
Snead: Yeah, she has always been a clear mentor of all of our students, but I think there’s a special place in the hearts of our women students for Judge Barrett, not just because of what she’s accomplished and what she stands for, but how she really takes time out of her work and her busy schedule to mentor and to support them.
And, of course, she’s very active in our community. … We have, like I said, a close-knit group of friends. They have kids that are roughly the same age as my kids and the kids of our colleagues. And she’s always, always available there to support other people’s families in times when they need assistance.
Just a small example: When our twins were born back in 2011, she and her husband were one of the first families to bring us dinner to try to alleviate the burden a little bit of newborns, twin newborns, especially.
And again, with all that she has to do in her work and in her own family life, she was thinking about us. And that’s par for the course for Judge Barrett. She is always thinking about others. She has really the heart of service for others.
Del Guidice: On that note, professor Snead, Judge Barrett is also a mom of seven. Can you talk a little bit about more that, more personal side of her that many who aren’t in her personal circle of friends aren’t able to see?
Snead: Sure, no, she’s an unbelievable mom. She’s present to her children. She works with her children. Like I said, my kids are roughly the same age as her kids. We know their family very well. We’re dear friends of the Barretts and love their kids, and she loves our kids.
And watching her be a mom is a wonderful inspiration for all of us. She doesn’t miss a step. It’s impossible to imagine how she’s capable of doing everything that she does, being fully present as a mom, being engaged, helping her kids in school, driving them to church, just being fully the best mom that one could be.
… For example, she has a little boy named Benjamin, and … he, every year, he gets bigger, and she begins the day by giving him a piggyback ride down the stairs from his bedroom down to the first floor of their house. And he’s not a small kid anymore. But it’s just part of their morning ritual. And it just shows how devoted she is, how much she loves her family and how much they love her.
Del Guidice: Professor, there’s something else I’m going to ask about, your perspective on how the media has covered Judge Barrett thus far.
I’m not sure if you saw it or not, but Reuters had a piece on her, which was headlined, “Handmaid’s Tale? US Supreme Court Candidate’s Religious Community Under Scrutiny.”
We all know what happened in 2017, where Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein called out the judge for her faith that so many people share. So I’m just curious, what are your thoughts and reflections on what we’ve seen so far?
Snead: Oh, my gosh. We’re of two minds at Notre Dame. Amy is beloved at Notre Dame by everybody from the president of the university all the way down to the people who work the buildings and grounds.
And it’s manifest to all of us, especially those of us who work in the law, that there’s really nobody more well-qualified to be on the Supreme Court than Judge Barrett. But the fact that she’s going to have to go through this process is sad for all of us because we know, and it’s, as you say, it’s already started.
That Reuters piece was an embarrassment, really. And it’s been edited several times, by the way, since its first iteration.
They must’ve come in for a lot of criticism because the first piece was purely one-sided, didn’t have any representation, didn’t have any comments at all from any of the religious communities that were discussed in the piece. Then they later came back and they changed it a little bit. And of course they said, “We could not verify independently any of the facts mentioned in the piece.”
Newsweek had a piece that argued that Margaret Atwood used the People of Praise, the Catholic lay renewal movement People of Praise, as an inspiration for “The Handmaid’s Tale.” That was based on a misrecollection that in fact she had a note in a letter that she referred to the People of Hope. Completely different organization. And so Newsweek had to issue a correction, but didn’t take down the article. So, we’re in for a rough ride.
Basically, I think, and I’m sorry to say this, but I think that given the polarization that we have, given the sort of super-heated pressure in our political system right now and the division in our country, you have folks that are not thinking before they level unfair attacks.
They feel like they’re in a zero-sum struggle for the nation, for the heart of the nation, and they’re treating it like a total war. And you have someone who is a decent, honest person, who’s up for a seat that doesn’t involve, or shouldn’t involve, politics. And yet, these folks are treating it as if we’re appointing a philosopher king and we should go to war to make sure we can get our preferred candidate in there.
Look, it’s unfortunate that the secular press and folks who write about these things, in many cases, aren’t familiar with religious practices and religious people. And from that arm’s-length perspective, certain things might seem unusual.
If you think about any religious practice to a person who’s coming at the question or observing it from the perspective of without familiarity, it might seem odd. It might seem odd that people kneel in church, in a Catholic church. It might seem odd that people take communion and believe that it’s the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ.
I mean, those are all things that would strike someone as unusual. And so you spin it out into some weird, dystopian, sinister conspiracy theory, which is beneficial because it serves as a cudgel in a political game, and that’s, unfortunately, what’s happening.
But the good news, and I would hope folks would listen to this, anybody who’s worried about what someone who has a judicial philosophy as Judge Barrett personally believes, or what their faith commitments are, their moral commitments are, should feel comfort by the fact that her judicial philosophy specifically excludes those considerations from her analysis as a judge.
She has said during her hearing, she said in her public appearances that she believes that the role of a judge—and again, this is consistent with her mentor, Justice Scalia—is to discern what the law says, and through a mechanism that’s tethered to the text, history, and tradition.
And there’s no room for importing your own political ideology or religious ideology in that interpretive framework. The times when folks should really ask searching questions about a person’s personal beliefs is when they have a jurisprudence that allows for them to import their own personal views into their work as a judge.
You see that that’s the difference between Justice Scalia, who was very disciplined in keeping those kinds of questions out of his analysis, and Justice [William] Brennan, whose mode of constitutional interpretation was flexible and untethered to the Constitution in the same way, and allowed him to import his own moral judgments into his interpretation of the clauses at issue.
If you’re worried about someone’s personal views, you should feel comforted by the fact that they take seriously the limited role of a judge as being to interpret the law itself as it was written, or as it was originally understood.
Del Guidice: Professor Snead, as we wrap up, is there anything you’d like to share about Judge Barrett that we haven’t been able to talk about yet?
Snead: Yeah, I think I just want to convey what an extraordinary person she is, how humane she is, how warm she is.
People have heard me say this many, many times now, but it is the case, and it bears reiterating that anytime you’re with Judge Barrett, no matter what room you’re in, she’s the smartest person in the room, but she’s also the most humble person in the room. She’s the most warm and generous person in the room.
And that’s an unbelievable combination of virtues, especially when you consider the echelon of high performance in which she finds herself, where people configure their lives to try to pursue their career ambitions.
Judge Barrett didn’t grow up looking to be a judge or a justice. People found her because she was so extraordinary. And that really distinguishes her from almost everyone who’s in conversation for these kinds of promotions on either side of the aisle.
Del Guidice: Professor Snead, thank you so much for joining us today on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” It’s been great having you.
Snead: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much.