War is peace, freedom is slavery, and the supreme court is a dispassionate nonpartisan branch of government free of bias – this is the Orwellian fable that Justice Amy Coney Barrett is now asking Americans to believe.
And Barrett is asking us to believe it not merely after the court’s wildly partisan ruling on abortion rights, but also just months after she promoted climate denialism to a national audience and refused to recuse herself as she helped secure a legal victory for the fossil fuel giant that employed her father for decades.
This is a tale not just of cartoonish hypocrisy but also of deception – a frantic attempt to prevent more of the country from realizing the court is a corporate star chamber that has become one of the most powerful partisan weapons in American politics.
First, the blatant hypocrisy: In an event that seems torn out of the pages of the Onion, Barrett this weekend appeared with the Senate’s Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell at a celebration of a University of Louisville facility he named after himself. After she was introduced by the most partisan Senate leader in American history, Barrett declared that the supreme court – which now includes three people who worked directly on the Republican campaign to pilfer the 2000 election – “is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.”
If that wasn’t absurd enough, Barrett then declared that judges must be “hyper vigilant to make sure they’re not letting personal biases creep into their decisions, since judges are people, too.”
That demand for ethical vigilance came less than four months after Barrett discarded her own past recusal list and opted to participate in the adjudication of a major climate case against Shell Oil – the fossil fuel giant that employed her father for nearly three decades. Barrett declined to recuse herself even though an amicus brief was filed in the case by the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying group that her father helped steer – and even though one prominent supporter of the case said her father could be subpoenaed for a deposition because of his potential “direct knowledge of and operational involvement in how Shell managed climate threats.”
But no recusal came – and, with Barrett’s help, the supreme court sided with Shell and other fossil fuel giants, delivering a big procedural win for the oil and gas industry.
Barrett’s participation in that case followed her Senate confirmation hearing, in which she refused to acknowledge the undisputed science of climate change (and in which flaccid Democrats decided not to bother to push her on recusal). She cast her position as an attempt to avoid being opinionated about the matter, but of course refusing to stipulate basic scientific fact is the opposite of dispassionate. It is an ideological and partisan expression of Republican orthodoxy wholly disconnected from empirical data.
And in case you thought Barrett’s zealotry, hypocrisy and conflicts of interest are germane only to one isolated case, remember that in the coming years, the fossil fuel industry will almost certainly ask the high court to shield it from legal consequences for its climate crimes.
Barrett’s motives here, though, are not just about war-is-peace-ing her way through her own ridiculously obvious conflicts of interest. She is also trying to preserve the image of the court as a transcendent fount of apolitical morality at a time when more and more Americans may be finally – belatedly – realizing that the panel is, in fact, made up of hacks.
As the Daily Poster has been reporting for quite a while, the panel has become the most conservative supreme court in modern history. This is a group of judges who now loyally rubber-stamp legal requests from the US Chamber of Commerce and other corporate groups bankrolling the politicians and the nomination campaigns that install rightwing appointees on the court. The justices have become so politically brazen that they now quietly issue landmark rulings in total secrecy through a so-called shadow docket.
Despite this, corporate media has typically portrayed the court as a moderating force above politics, and even putatively liberal or centrist pundits have periodically touted some of the most rightwing justices.
This propaganda campaign has worked – even as the court exacerbates the climate crisis, restricts abortion rights, tramples voting rights and issues ever-more-extreme rulings helping corporations crush workers, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they approve of the court’s work, according to the latest survey.
However, that’s down a sizable six points since last year – which suggests that more of the country is beginning to realize that a fetid form of corporatism and partisanship is quietly rotting the judiciary from within.
Barrett rightly senses that this realization threatens the perceived legitimacy of the justice system, and therefore could create momentum for real reform – whether it means term limits for supreme court judges or an expansion of the court.
Any of those reforms are a threat to her power, and the power of all the corporate forces that bought high-court jobs for rightwing justices. So she’s trying to do whatever she can to prevent America from understanding how nefarious the upreme court has become.
That’s what her speech was really all about – and we shouldn’t be fooled. We should be emboldened behind the cause of finally fixing a star chamber that is causing so much harm throughout the country and the world.
David Sirota is a Guardian US columnist and an investigative journalist. He is an editor at large at Jacobin and the founder of the Daily Poster. He served as Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign speechwriter
This article was originally published in the Daily Poster, a grassroots-funded investigative news outlet