President Donald Trump stands with newly sworn in U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court marks a huge victory for Republicans.
Despite the criticism from Democrats for prioritizing her appointment over passing a new COVID-19 stimulus package, experts say the GOP was following a longstanding plan.
If Republicans lose both the White House and Senate in 2020, they still have control over a critical branch of government: the judiciary.
“White evangelicals will wait for the stimulus package. It pales in comparison to getting the Supreme Court justice,” an expert told Insider.
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Even if President Donald Trump doesn’t win on November 3, Amy Coney Barrett delivered the GOP a crucial victory.
The federal judge — now a newly-minted Supreme Court Justice — is the first nominee in US history to be confirmed this close to an Election Day. Barrett replaced the late liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg eight days before the general election, thanks to a Republican-led Senate that was fiercely committed to filling the seat.
In the ensuing weeks, Democrats denounced Republicans for prioritizing a judicial appointment and punting on key legislative duties, key among which was a new coronavirus stimulus bill to help millions of struggling Americans.
The partisan fiasco came to a head on Monday evening when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plans finally materialized. He adjourned the Senate after Barrett’s confirmation vote, shutting down the prospect of additional aid until after the election.
Despite the criticism, experts say Republicans stuck to the surest way they know to preserve their political influence: controlling the courts. With Barrett, the results were twofold: Republicans cemented a conservative majority on the nation’s highest bench for decades to come, and they solidified support from some of their core constituents, white evangelical Christians.
McConnell’s ‘leave no vacancy behind’ mindset about the courts
And the timing couldn’t have been more ideal for the party, experts told Insider. As Trump trails his Democratic opponent Joe Biden in national polls and Republicans fight to maintain their majority in the Senate, this may have been the last opportunity in the foreseeable future to fulfill their legal agenda — and they pounced on it.
No matter the outcome of the 2020 election, “at least they can hold onto one branch of government,” John Fea, a history professor at Messiah University, told Insider. “It’s perfectly fitting with the political playbook.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., gives two thumbs up as he leaves the chamber at the Capitol after a vote confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, in Washington. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo
This playbook has been years in the making.
After Republicans won the Senate during then-President Barack Obama’s second term, they consistently blocked his judicial nominees. McConnell’s tactics were thrust into the spotlight in 2016 when he refused to even consider Obama’s pick to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
“It is a president’s constitutional right to nominate a Supreme Court justice, and it is the Senate’s constitutional right to act as a check on a president and withhold its consent,” McConnell said on the Senate floor after Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland.
By the time Trump took office, Republicans were well-positioned to reshape the judiciary, as the president inherited 105 empty judgeships from his predecessor.
McConnell has since helmed an historic effort to flood the federal courts with conservative judges. In total, the top Republican has made 220 confirmations, including three Supreme Court justices. He reemphasized his mission earlier this year with a declaration to “leave no vacancy behind” — pushing through 26 federal judges even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conservative judgeships are critical to the GOP’s white evangelical base
Republicans began to cultivate a strategy on the judiciary decades ago, around the same time that white evangelicals entered the political forefront. After landmark Supreme Court cases, including 1973’s Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, white evangelicals grew increasingly worried with what they viewed as the nation’s moral downturn. The GOP, emboldened by the conservative coalition, coalesced under an anti-abortion and pro-religious liberty platform. Then, in the 1980s, white evangelicals started consistently voting red.
Amy Coney Barrett looks over to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as they meet with on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on September 29, 2020. SUSAN WALSH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Many white evangelicals believe that “the United States will not survive if it does not course-correct and get back to these white evangelical Christian values,” Lauren Kerby, a religious studies lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, told Insider. The Supreme Court offers them a shortcut “to enforce these kinds of values that they’re really concerned about.”
The party then moved to build a network of conservative lawyers and judges to resist liberal influence in the courts, Andrew Lewis, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, told Insider. They coined a judicial philosophy focused on resolving legal disputes through the Constitution’s original text, known as originalism, and empowered groups such as the Federalist Society to promote the interpretation. Critics say the ideology works to limit the federal government’s power over social issues like abortion and leaves them up to state legislatures to decide.
Fast forward to Trump, and “all of this led to really strong efficiency of getting conservative judges appointed,” Lewis said.
Barrett, a self-identified originalist, was previously a member of the Federalist Society, along with many other Trump-appointees. “Barrett became one of the judicial candidates that the religious right was most interested in,” Lewis told Insider. “She represents these cultural and traditional conservative interests more, so I think it really gets many of them excited.”
The relationship between Republicans and white evangelicals continues to energize this legal pursuit. Trump gained 80% of their vote in 2016 after he campaigned on the courts.
In 2020, with Barrett, “it’s less about trying to win over the evangelicals,” Fea, an American evangelicalism scholar, told Insider. “It’s a matter of upholding them — not losing them. It’s a matter of securing that 80%.”
Had Republicans left the Supreme Court seat open, they would’ve failed to elevate their conservative ideology and disappointed much of their base, Fea added.
“White evangelicals will wait for the stimulus package,” he said. “It pales in comparison to getting the Supreme Court justice.”
People that both support and oppose the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court of the United States on October 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. Samuel Corum/Getty ImagesBarrett’s confirmation has sparked excitement among Republicans, and concern among Democrats
If Biden wins the presidential election, it’s unclear whether he’ll attempt to tip the Supreme Court’s majority in his favor by adding more justices. The former vice president has remained intentionally vague on the topic, saying only that he is “not a fan” of court packing and will create a bipartisan commission to study court reform, if elected.
Some progressives in the Democratic party have already rallied behind the idea of expanding the court after Barrett’s confirmation on Monday night. But McConnell blasted the notion earlier this week and said that the left “won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”
At the moment, he’s not entirely wrong. Barrett is 48 years old and will serve a lifetime appointment on the court, much to the dismay of liberals who decry her record as a threat to women’s reproductive rights, health care, and gun control.
In the coming months, the Supreme Court is slated to take on a number of contentious cases, including a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, at which time it will become clear just how far right the ideological balance has shifted.
Despite the trepidation, however, Barrett’s upcoming rulings spark excitement for many supporters.
To them, Kerby said, “Barrett is like Jesus. She’s going to save the nation somehow.”
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