Your Donation Will Be Doubled. Support Today!

Amy Coney Barrett’s Record on Criminal Justice Is ‘Deeply Troubling,’ Reform Advocates Say

In the midst of a national debate about changing the criminal legal system, Barrett is set to take a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Advocates see her addition as a potential setback to creating a more fair system.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett on Oct. 21.Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s expected confirmation by the Senate on Monday to a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court will be an enormous blow to criminal justice reform, advocates say.

“She has a deeply, deeply troubling record when it comes to people who are caught up in the criminal justice system,” Daniel Goldberg, legal director for the Alliance for Justice, told The Appeal.

Barrett was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, despite all of the Democratic members boycotting the vote. Before her appointment by President Trump to the Seventh Circuit in 2017, Barrett, a conservative, had no judicial experience. She worked as an attorney for a private practice for two years before becoming a law professor in 2002. But during her short tenure on the bench, she has taken positions in several cases that could signal a setback for criminal justice reform. 

In 2019, she penned a dissent in McCottrell v. White, siding with two prison guards who fired shotguns to break up a fight. The buckshot from the guns struck multiple men in the prison, including several who were not involved in the fight.

Although the majority of the court decided that there was enough evidence for a jury to find the guards acted with excessive force and remanded the case to the trial court, Barrett took the guards at their word, finding they didn’t intentionally harm the men because they had fired the guns into the ceiling.

In January, Barrett joined a majority opinion reversing a lower court order that found two Indianapolis police officers should be held accountable for leaving an 18-year-old handcuffed while he complained of having difficulty breathing until he died from lack of oxygen. Barrett and the circuit court decided the officers were entitled to qualified immunity from being held liable for the death of the teenager, who was accused of stealing a watch from Burlington Coat Factory.

Barrett has even attempted to undermine Trump’s signature criminal justice reform legislation. Less than two weeks before her nomination last month, Barrett wrote a dissent in United States v. Uriarte, contending that a man sentenced to more than 40 years in prison for drug and firearm offenses was not entitled to relief under the First Step Act.

The majority of the court disagreed and resentenced the man to 20 years in prison under the new guidelines.

Even before taking the bench, Barrett has taken positions that could be disastrous for people seeking relief from the Supreme Court.

In law review articles, Barrett has argued that the constitutionality of Miranda rights is disputed and argued that non-U.S. citizens being held in the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are not entitled to protest their detention once convicted.

Trump nominated Barrett to replace liberal champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg after Ginsburg’s death in September. “Justice Ginsburg was a giant in the fight for equality and civil rights,” Black Lives Matter wrote in a public statement denouncing Barrett. “Judge Amy Coney Barrett shouldn’t even be in consideration, as she has no plans but to roll back on RBG’s initiatives.”

With Barrett’s confirmation securing a conservative majority in the court, advocates should focus on pushing criminal justice reform issues in other areas by electing local leaders who will enact reforms and pushing Congress to change laws, Goldberg said.

“The reality is, not just at the Supreme Court but the lower courts—which have been packed with right-wing ideologues—there are judges who are not going to be on the side of ensuring racial equality and ensuring equal justice under the law,” Goldberg added. “That will require advocates and all people who care deeply about these issues to press them in different forms.”