Following Hearings, Intense Coverage of Amy Coney Barrett Subsides

The Senate wrapped up last week its fourth and final day of hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s most recent Supreme Court nominee. With that, Barrett quickly disappeared from news headlines, likely indicating her future trajectory.

Confirmation hearings are a unique part of the process toward membership on the Supreme Court because they lead to more intensive and detailed news coverage on individual judges that can shape public opinion on the potential justices. Though Barrett is a less contentious selection than Trump’s last nominee, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, her hearings occurred amid the highly partisan battle to fill the vacancy left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

With the presidential election just over three weeks away, Democrats repeatedly expressed opposition toward holding the hearings at all. Despite these concerns, the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings for Barrett and even scheduled a committee vote to advance her nomination to the Senate floor on Oct. 22.

Barrett will almost certainly be confirmed, as Senate Republicans have the votes to push her through next week. When asked about the rushed nomination and confirmation process, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) blamed Democrats for shifting the precedent during Kavanaugh’s confirmation process in 2018, claiming they had “changed every rule, every norm.” 

There has never been a Supreme Court nomination so close to a presidential election date in American history. Just four years ago, Senate Republicans refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland upon the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, even though the selection occurred 237 days before the presidential election. Following Trump’s nomination of Barrett, the media highlighted this hypocrisy heavily.

A Gallup poll released on Oct. 20 shows that 51 percent of Americans support Barett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, but partisan disagreement remains higher than ever. Nearly nine out of ten Republicans support her nomination, while 84 percent of Democrats do not support it. This striking divide on Barrett’s place on the Court reflects the overwhelming amount of news coverage speaking to the partisan divide, further highlighting the conflict.

Trump’s nomination of Barrett and Senate Republicans’ willingness to confirm her in the weeks leading up to the presidential election have been hotly debated. Though the media highlighted Democrats’ dismay at Barrett’s nomination, her academic, family, and professional background were also thoroughly covered by major news outlets. This led to the perception of Barrett as a respected judge in the midst of partisan drama, despite controversial conservative rulings in the past.

Barrett was a strong student as an undergraduate at Rhodes College and in law school at Notre Dame. Barrett returned to Notre Dame as a professor, where she worked until 2017 when Trump appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. She is a mother of seven and brings little of the scandal that accompanied Kavanaugh, as news outlets everywhere were quick to note.

However, Barrett is a staunch conservative, more so than almost every current justice on the Supreme Court; she would also be the youngest sitting justice, indicating a lengthy future of conservative decisions.

As a mentee of Scalia, she strictly follows originalist theory, which entails interpreting laws and the Constitution as they were understood at the time they were written. If confirmed, she may be the most conservative justice since Justice Clarence Thomas. Her confirmation would also create a 6-3 conservative majority on the court, leaving room for the court to overturn earlier precedents set by a majority-liberal court.

Barrett’s consistently right-leaning rulings are a cause of concern for the Democrats. During her hearings, Democratic senators repeatedly pressed her on abortion and the precedent set by Roe v. Wade. Another frequent query was about her stance on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Barrett gave very little ground on these topics, leaving viewers with few answers and news outlets with minimal new information to cover.

Public opinion of Barrett has already been influenced by news coverage, which was most intense following Trump’s initial selection and during the first days of her hearings. This is likely the most time in the spotlight she will receive; after her probable confirmation, she will follow the steps of the justices before her and fade away from the public eye. 

Unsurprisingly, conservative outlets like Fox took an overwhelmingly positive approach to Barrett throughout this process, running stories about her acting as a role model for young girls and adopting children. They also honed in on Democratic senators’ negative questioning, including a moment when Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked Barrett if she had ever sexually assaulted anyone.

Fox’s positive coverage is not surprising, considering the news outlet’s stance during Kavanaugh’s confirmation. In 2018, Fox strongly opposed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Kavanaugh, making a pointed attempt to undermine her credibility.

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