Mass adjourned with a rousing processional hymn and a reminder about the bake sale outside, but Amy Coney Barrett wasn’t ready to leave. Her husband, Jesse, dressed in a beige long-sleeved shirt and cream-colored pants, hustled toward the exit, ahead of the other parishioners. Barrett, however, remained in the maroon cushioned pew at the Catholic church, unrushed. She sat next to her 12-year-old son Benjamin, her youngest, who has Down syndrome, the “unanimous favorite of the family,” as she described him in her Supreme Court nomination hearings. She placed her hand on his back and fixed her gaze on his face, ignoring the cheerful post-Mass hum of hovering congregants.

Among them was her colleague and fellow parishioner Justice Clarence Thomas, who sat across the aisle from the Barretts with his wife, Virginia, who goes by “Ginni.” (It was Justice Thomas who had administered Barrett’s oath to join the Supreme Court.)

In the quaint neo-Gothic stone church nestled in a leafy neighborhood, the pastor gave a homily disentangling the perceived tension between freedom, obedience and obligations. “Once we think that freedom means doing whatever we want, then we are slaves — just to our passions and our desires, which is what we’re witnessing now,” he said from the pulpit. “Freedom apart from God turns into slavery.”

Ahead of Barrett on this Sunday morning in late April was an important week at the Supreme Court — on the docket were oral arguments for a homelessness case in Oregon, Idaho’s laws on emergency care and abortion treatment, and, perhaps the most consequential leading up to the 2024 presidential election, Donald Trump’s immunity trial related to his role in the events of January 6.

But lit by suspended lanterns from the church’s ceiling flanked with wooden arches, Barrett seemed far removed from interpreting the Constitution, from the partisan bickering online, and from work on the book she’s writing about keeping personal feelings out of judicial decisions. She looked different from her public image, too, more down-to-earth: black flats, poncho-style sweater, glasses. Amid the bustle of the parish and the demands outside of it, Barrett, a devoted mother, focused her attention on her son. At last, as the church emptied, Barrett rose from the pew, took her son by the hand, and made her way toward the altar in the wood-paneled sanctuary of the church.

Barrett’s lasting mark on the court may be the way she could redefine what it means to be a conservative justice.

During her confirmation hearings in October 2020, Barrett projected composure and restraint, dodging controversial questions and periodically reaffirming her impartiality: She vowed to tackle each case with “an open mind,” unswayed by politics, applying the Constitution as the founders had intended. Following Trump’s appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, Barrett’s confirmation tilted the court significantly to the right, securing a 6-3 conservative majority.

Unlike her anodyne answers, her style during the hearings displayed more flair: the fuschia dress, golden drop earrings, frilly blouse collar. There were even glimpses of a sense of humor — the one her friends have assured me she has — when she lifted the blank stationary to showcase that she had no notes prepared and proceeded to read the letterhead. (“She’s also funny,” one friend told me. “It’s probably not something that comes across about her.”)

Barrett, then a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and former Notre Dame University law professor, was hailed by Republicans as a sharp legal scholar with an unwavering commitment to originalism and an impeccable — albeit not very long — legal record of decisions that appeared to align with the Republican Party’s vision for the country, particularly on abortion and the Second Amendment. Barrett was quick on her feet, polished and young enough to have a lengthy tenure on the court. She was so impressive that even her lack of Ivy League degrees, present on resumes of all other current Supreme Court justices, began to seem like a favorable advantage.

Barrett would replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist icon and champion of the left, who was buried just two weeks before the confirmation hearings — and five before the 2020 presidential election — and whose dying wish, as NPR reported, was for Congress to wait until the new president was elected to replace her. But Republicans had pounced on the opportunity to fill the seat while they still controlled the presidency.

Even more unusual was the fact that Barrett is a mother of seven — a path-breaking model for conservative women and the only woman on the court ever with school-age children. “All the young conservative women out there — this hearing is about a place for you,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said in the hearings. To Senate Democrats, however, Barrett’s confirmation hearings were illegitimate and rushed — just eight days before the presidential election and after 60 million people across the United States had already voted. The hearing was a distraction from approving relief for Covid, they reiterated, a mere political move to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a case slated to be heard by the court the following month.

Both Democrats and Republicans expected Barrett to fall in lockstep with conservative legal priorities. But looking at Barrett’s four terms on the bench, it’s hard to describe them in a singular way. She did fulfill the hopes of conservatives by casting the crucial fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and voted to limit affirmative action and sustain rights to hold firearms. But she’s been surprising in other cases, exhibiting caution and restraint when, for instance, in the Catholic foster agency case, she refused to overrule the precedent before knowing what would replace it. During hearings, she’s been an incisive interrogator (her questions make headlines) and in court opinions, a thorough and precise writer, shaped by years in academia. Ideologically, she’s fallen alongside Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts in the relatively moderate middle, which makes Barrett an influential vote in cases split between the conservative and liberal wings on the court. “On many issues we have a 3-3-3 court rather than a 6-3 court,” said David Lat, lawyer and founder of the legal commentary site Above the Law.

Recently, however, Barrett’s presence on the bench began to shift. In oral arguments that took place at the end of April, she’s been bolder, more terse and almost impatient with opponents’ opaque reasoning and lack of logic. In her recent questioning of Idaho’s solicitor general on abortion treatment, she grew uncharacteristically short and to-the-point. “I’m kind of shocked, actually,” she said, evidently frustrated with the lawyer’s convoluted argument. The following day, during a hearing on presidential immunity, Barrett grilled Trump’s lawyer on the distinction between Trump’s private and official acts, an exchange that experts said reframed the argument of the case. A month prior, in Trump’s Colorado ballot case, she penned a biting concurrence admonishing her liberal colleagues for their divisive rhetoric in the opinion. After Barrett’s searing exchanges that week in oral argument, experts called her a “key player,” who is “increasingly comfortable in her skin.”

I’ve talked to more than a dozen people, including friends and past colleagues, who know Barrett and her work, and what’s clear is that both sides got her all wrong. Her fourth term on the bench has proven that much. At 52, Barrett, who declined to be interviewed for this story, no longer needs to appease anyone’s expectations, including those who championed her along the way to the court. But now that there is no higher mountain to climb, the question of what’s driving Amy Coney Barrett — what she wants — is not as straightforward as it once appeared.

The Coney dinner table rarely included politics. A yard sign endorsing a political candidate never adorned the family’s lawn.

Barrett grew up keenly aware of the needs around her and the part she had in responding to them. In the 1980s, in Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, Barrett’s mother, Linda Coney, a former high school French teacher, dispatched Barrett, the eldest, and her six siblings to deliver meals to the elderly and the sick in their neighborhood. When Barrett’s father, Michael Coney, a lawyer for Shell Oil, was offered a promotion and a raise that required a move to Houston, he tried commuting for three months. It was tough on the family, so he quit the job. “Our discernment had told us that money and success were not as important as what was best for our family,” he wrote in an essay on the website of his parish.

While praying, Michael Coney felt called to shepherd his church community as a deacon of St. Catherine of Siena Parish, which Barrett and her family attended growing up. Eventually the family joined an ecumenical community called the People of Praise, a point in Barrett’s biography that, three decades later, would elicit great suspicion and even obsession from critics because of the group’s strict adherence to traditional gender roles and practices like speaking in tongues.

The Coney dinner table rarely included politics — a yard sign endorsing a political candidate never adorned their lawn — but when their precinct lost a polling place, her parents offered up their garage as a voting location. “This wasn’t a convenient thing for my parents … but they saw a need and so they volunteered their home to fill it,” Barrett said at an event at George Washington University in March, where she appeared with fellow Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Amy Coney Barrett, shown with her husband Jesse Barrett, was on President Donald Trump’s short list of conservative justices in 2018 to succeed retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, but didn’t get nominated until 2020 after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died. | Alex Wong, Getty Images

Whether it was a sense of duty that fueled Barrett’s ambition or the other way around, the two were deeply intertwined. In high school at St. Mary’s Dominican, she worked with envy-inducing efficiency. For one English assignment, Barrett wrote a paper over a course of a lunch period and got an A, her high school friend Angelle Adams told me. “She’s a very goal-oriented person, and kind of relentless, I would say, in pursuit of her goals,” said Adams, who bonded with Barrett over books like “Anne of Green Gables” and “A Wrinkle in Time.”

In college, to cope with a disappointment over an A- in French, Barrett decided to “conquer” the language and declare it as a minor. “She wants to win at Trivial Pursuit. If she’s going to play, she’s going to win,” Adams told me.

But Barrett wasn’t a Lisa Simpson all the time. She could have fun, too. There was the time in high school when, as a vice president of the student council, she orchestrated an installation of a haunted house on the stage of the gym for a fundraiser with girls “jumping off ladders” and bowls of spaghetti to resemble brains. “She was very social — it’s not like she was an intellectual hermit who huddled behind a book in her glasses,” Adams recalls.

If Barrett had big ambitions back then, she never declared them to anyone. At Rhodes College in Memphis, where she studied English, she went to church every week, held her own at parties, and never bragged about acceptance into Phi Beta Kappa. She liked C.S. Lewis and somber British movies, like “Shadowlands,” which told the story of Lewis’ life. The only class her college friend Chip Campbell remembered Barrett complaining about was computer programming. She preferred meatier conversations about free speech and whether priests and nuns should marry. “She was like: I’m figuring out who I am as a person and I’m going to work hard to then get there,” Campbell told me.

But perhaps even without fully realizing it, Barrett continued to gravitate toward weightier responsibilities. As vice president of the Honor Council at Rhodes College, a 17-person panel that determined the fate of students accused of violating the school’s honor code, Barrett collected evidence on “a multitude of sins — from cheating on a test to lying in an official matter,” according to an article in the 1994 Rhodes student and alumni magazine. During one trial that went on for 23 hours, Barrett and other council members took a break at 3 a.m. to get a few hours of sleep only to reconvene and continue to deliberate. “You want to be absolutely sure you’re doing the right thing by that person,” Barrett, then 22, told the magazine. “Everybody (on the council) is supposed to be on the same side and have equal concern for the accused, the Honor Code itself and the community.” It sounded like something she might say about the Supreme Court 30 years later.

In a photo in her college yearbook, wearing a white cable-knit sweater and jeans, sitting on the ground, legs crossed — with what resembles a backdrop of the Seine riverbank in Paris — Barrett cradles a bottle of wine and a baguette. The wind is ruffling her wavy bangs and Barrett is beaming, as if she can’t contain the thrill of what’s ahead.

Barrett has said that she stays away from reading press about herself, good or bad, as a way of walling herself off from playing to the influences and expectations of others.

Back at their church, as Barrett and her son stood by the altar rail, she struck up a conversation with a priest and several young women, while two security officers waited in the back of the chapel, keeping an eye on Barrett and son.

Security now followed her to grocery stores, to buy her children’s uniforms and to church. “I’ve found it difficult to get used to that aspect of the job,” Barrett said in a speech. Careful, guarded, constantly accompanied by detail — it wasn’t always like this for Barrett.

In South Bend, where Barrett met her husband when they were both law students at Notre Dame University, the couple surrounded themselves with the proverbial village, which eventually included seven kids, two adopted from Haiti. The law school faculty at Notre Dame was a tight-knit group that shared carpools and hosted barbecues, Easter egg hunts and post-Halloween trick-or-treating pizza parties. Sick kids came to work and sometimes to class.

Barrett was immersed in the life of the law school — often in its less glamorous aspects, like advocating for more convenient staff parking to make carpooling with children easier and helping a blind student, Laura Wolk, with technology. During confirmation testimony, Wolk recounted Barrett’s warmth and attention when Wolk reluctantly came to Barrett for help, recalling that Barrett had said, “Laura, this is no longer your problem — it’s my problem.” Rick Garnett, her friend and professor at Notre Dame Law, told me Barrett “wasn’t an absentee professor as you can imagine some professors being who have a lot of outside things going on.”

Professor Barrett’s teaching style was not flashy, yet it was engaging, former students told me. She was tough and firm in her grading, but well liked by students, and earned three “best teacher” awards. “She had a way of teaching that was very effective in not injecting her own personal views,” a former student said. “While some other professors would have relished the opportunity to be in the spotlight, argue with senators at a hearing, be at a press conference in the Rose Garden with the president — I would have never picked her out as one of them,” the student said.

After their last Easter egg hunt in South Bend, before the family moved to the D.C. area, Barrett shared tears with Nicole Garnett, a Notre Dame University law professor who lived around the corner from Barrett for about 20 years. “They had no desire to ever leave this place,” Garnett told me. “Until getting a call from the White House for the 7th Circuit, I never heard her raise a possibility of being a judge at all,” she said. “I think it was a serious question whether or not she was going to allow herself to be considered.”

“Are you prepared for the attacks?” Trump had asked Barrett in September 2020, during a secret meeting in the Oval Office before the nomination, a scene Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, detailed in his memoir. “They’re going to come at you with everything they’ve got. And you need to be ready. Are you?”

The project of getting Barrett to the Supreme Court began long before her nomination. A member of the Federalist Society, which has been instrumental in advancing judicial candidates to Republican presidents, Barrett was placed on Trump’s short list in 2018. Although Trump went with Kavanaugh, a “more establishment-friendly nominee,” Meadows wrote, the decision “had come back to bite us.” Trump couldn’t repeat the same mistake. Barrett, reportedly, didn’t hesitate answering his question: “Yes, I am.”

In their Oval Office meeting, Trump also asked Barrett whether she’d uphold the Constitution, ensuring she wouldn’t “do all this legislating from the bench that the liberals do.” When asked in the hearings what it felt like to be nominated to the Supreme Court, Barrett’s seemingly unrehearsed answer painted a portrait of a fearless and dutiful servant with no self-aggrandizing ambitions: “I’m not the only person who could do this job, but I was asked, and it would be difficult for anyone,” said Barrett in the hearings. “So why should I say someone else should do the difficulty? If the difficulty is the only reason to say no, I should serve my country.”

But she didn’t know then how bad it was going to get.

In June 2022, after a leak of the draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, protesters appeared in Barrett’s quiet cul-de-sac of stately colonials in Falls Church. A day after, a California man showed up at Kavanaugh’s home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with a plan to assassinate him, and a group marched in front of Barrett’s house, holding up signs like “We didn’t elect people of praise.” Some groups resembled performance art with blood-soaked dolls and the red and white costumes from the television adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Protesters yelled profanities while Barrett tried putting her kids to sleep. One podcast called her a “right-wing freak.” A milder take was that she’s “bad for women.” Barrett’s $2 million book deal with Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House, spurred an uproar from the literary community, writing in a public letter that the publisher “privately funded the destruction of human rights with obscene profits.”

More Americans (46 percent) had opposed Barrett’s nomination than supported it (42 percent). To some progressive women, Barrett represents betrayal of shared, hard-won rights. “She’s a woman voting against women — she’s literally the ‘pick me’ of the Supreme Court,” said Cassidy Thompson, who was protesting outside of the Supreme Court on a morning in April, while the justices deliberated on homelessness in Oregon. Linda Finkel-Talvadkar, another woman there, worried that the Supreme Court is becoming a political entity not representative of most Americans or in touch with modern-day reality. “To have us be ruled by antiquated laws based on antiquated statements in the Constitution is absurd,” said Finkel-Talvadkar, a D.C. resident and “child of the ‘60s,” as she described herself, who often participates in the protests.

Last year, Barrett was interrupted midsentence while speaking about former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s views on federalism at the University of Minnesota, when abortion-rights protesters erupted, chanting, “Not the court, not the state, people must decide their fate.” Barrett froze, her lips pursed, looking out at the hecklers the way a disappointed mother would look at her misbehaving child. “She is perfectly willing to take all the arrows, but she thinks family should be left out of it,” Amul Thapar, Barrett’s friend and a federal appellate court judge, told me.

She’s grown more private, too, and has tempered her public comments about her faith, which has been the target of the harshest attacks against her. In March, Barrett spoke to a group of Harvard Catholic alumni at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., and she asked that it be off the record. “I do think that there are times when, especially now, she may hold herself a bit apart, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily her nature or her personality,” Adams, the high school friend, told me. “It’s more a function of (being) a Supreme Court justice. Would you get up and dance crazy at your cousin’s wedding? Those are some normal things that most people would do that she can’t do. Because somebody’s going to put that on the internet.”

“How does she do it?” was my question to every friend of Barrett I spoke with. The children, including one with a disability, the pressures and expectations of the job, the critics. Part of the answer is surely practical: Her husband, also a lawyer, pulls the heavier load at home; family helps with child care. Several people mentioned a nanny. Barrett has said that she stays away from reading press about herself, good or bad, as a way of walling herself off from playing to the influences and expectations of others. “I mean, like why should you be reading a steady diet — or in my case, it wouldn’t really be a steady diet — why should you be consuming flattering articles about yourself?” she said in a 2022 Notre Dame symposium, inviting laughter from the crowd.

“I think she’s been able to do all that she’s been able to do because she approaches these decisions as a question,” Nicole Garnett, the former neighbor, told me. “‘What I’m meant to be doing,’ and not, ‘Is this the next more prestigious thing or is this going to be an inconvenience?’”

Maybe, as she heard in the day’s sermon, it’s Barrett’s orientation toward the thing she’s been called to do that empowers her. “We all have obligations. How are we going to fulfill those obligations?” the pastor preached. “We can fulfill them slavishly, stomping our feet and slamming doors and grumbling about things.” He continued: “But our Lord shows us that true freedom consists in undertaking our obligations joyfully and generously.”

Barrett has said that she stays away from reading press about herself, good or bad, as a way of walling herself off from playing to the influences and expectations of others.

The day the Supreme Court heard the Idaho state abortion treatment case, abortion-rights activists and local health care workers protested outside the courthouse, staging a “die-in” protest and holding up signs that said “No limits on emergency care.” Inside, the temperature was heating up, too. In a different kind of split, the four women on the bench grilled the Idaho lawyer on the question of the state’s near-complete abortion ban violating a federal law that requires emergency care for patients, which includes abortions. The men on the bench mostly remained on the sidelines during the argument, while the women, on both sides, invoked real-life scenarios like sepsis, preeclampsia and uncontrolled bleeding.

Barrett, whose track record is largely defined by her anti-abortion stance, joined the liberal Justice Sotomayor in grilling Idaho Solicitor General Joshua Turner on whether doctors could be prosecuted for administering an abortion.

“Why are you here?” Barrett asked Turner, fishing for a precise ruling that the court was up against. Later, she chimed in with unusual tension in her voice: “Counsel, I’m kind of shocked, actually, because I thought your own expert had said below that these kinds of cases were covered,” she said to Turner, referring to emergency cases that would merit abortion. “And you’re now saying they’re not?” Barrett had no patience for the lawyer’s imprecision: “Well, you’re hedging.” She then dovetailed with Sotomayor to advance her point: “I mean, Justice Sotomayor is asking you, ‘Would this be covered or not?’”

The next day, during Trump’s immunity hearing, in another terse exchange, this time with the former president’s attorney, John Sauer, Barrett rattled off Trump’s violations, asking Sauer to identify whether they were private or official, and ultimately getting him to concede that Trump’s private actions do not qualify for immunity.

Support for Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court largely hinged on her anti-abortion views. Since helping overturn Roe v. Wade, she has moved to a more moderate position among the nine justices. | Samuel Corum, Getty Images

Experts say that we’re witnessing Barrett figuring out her jurisprudence and forming as a justice before our eyes. Being on the court, she once said, “it’s like learning to ride a bike with everyone watching you.” Barrett arrived on the court with a set of neutral principles that she’s been figuring out how to apply to law, William Baude, law professor at the University of Chicago, told me. “She’s not just working out her gut instincts on the fly, but is really trying to put a well-developed philosophy into practice,” he said.

This Justice Barrett, more than ever before, seems more blunt and less concerned with how she may appear — perhaps more open to pushing ideological boundaries that may have been ascribed to her. Ruth Marcus, a Washington Post columnist, wrote following that week that Barrett has been “no submissive pushover.”

The recent surprises, or perhaps deviations from a reductive caricature she was made into, mark an emergence of her voice that’s more nuanced and bold and which may steer the court’s most important cases in unexpected directions. Could it be that Barrett, whose unflashy and dogged commitment to interpreting law that the progressives thought to be a mere façade, is ready to stake out her own distinct position on the court?

Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School who clerked for Justice David Souter at the same time Barrett clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia, had “never met someone so charismatic, so brilliant, and so conservative all at the same time,” he said in his audiobook “Takeover” about the history of the Federalist Society. He doesn’t agree with Barrett on the methods and the outcomes of “many, many, many” cases, he told me, but she exhibits an “incredible command of legal doctrine and logic.” Among the conservatives on the court, she had the “special something,” he noted.

Regardless of how Barrett might vote in the crucial cases heard in April, her influence and mark on the court are bound to only amplify, experts and Barrett’s allies believe. Her fame nationally is likely to exceed Ginsburg, Feldman predicted in his book: “She will very soon be the most recognizable and identifiable of the Supreme Court justices.”

Barrett is unlikely to drift to the left the way some believe Anthony Kennedy or John Roberts have, Lat thinks. “She came in very conservative and she’s going to leave very conservative,” he told me. But part of Barrett’s lasting mark on the court may be the way she could redefine what it means to be a conservative justice.

“She’s a great example of how in order to achieve the highest levels of success, you don’t necessarily have to be cutting, snarky or cutthroat to get there,” said Samantha Dravis, a conservative lobbyist and one of Barrett’s former students.

Thomas Griffith, a retired D.C. Circuit judge and Barrett’s friend, told me that he thinks Barrett’s cultural impact may be just as important as her legal influence. “In many ways, cultural impact is more important than legal impact, right?” He continued: “I mean, ‘law is downstream of culture.’”


At the sanctuary, Barrett and her son, along with three other parishioners, knelt at a step by the marble altar rail. A purple stained-glass window glowed above the wooden crucifix. A priest held up a communion wafer in one hand and a chalice in another, and proceeded to administer a blessing.

Other congregants began trickling into the church, announcing the next Mass. Barrett and her son appeared ready to conclude their worship, and two detail officers ushered them toward the exit.

It was time to return to her bustling household and the following day, to the courthouse, from which Barrett’s voice would be transmitted across the entire country. Outside, a gray SUV waited in the church’s alleyway. Security by her side, Barrett propped open the church’s hefty wooden door and stepped into the sunlight.

This story appears in the July/August 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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