Why Character Counts on the Court

Why Character Counts on the Court
(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)
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Judicial confirmation hearings draw an audience for several reasons, not least of which are the occasional fireworks from certain members of the Senate. We love to root for (or against) the nominee amid the back-and-forth commentary of the senators, now praising and now grilling the would-be justice, who must remain composed throughout the process. It’s hard to imagine any other kind of job interview that calls for that kind of grace under pressure—and even harder to think of one where it is customary for the candidate to trot out mentors, a spouse, siblings, and even children. But that unusual and long-standing practice persists at judicial hearings, and it warrants some consideration as to why.

When Judge Amy Coney Barrett gave her opening remarks at the Senate confirmation hearings on Monday, she made special and individual mention of her husband, her parents, and each of her seven children. Given our current cultural climate, some may have cynically suspected political pandering, particularly as Barrett introduced her adopted Haitian children. But on a more balanced view, the fact that two of her children are black is not remarkable; the fact that they are two children in addition to her five natural ones is. Almost everyone who has spoken about Barrett publicly in recent weeks – both her supporters and detractors – has highlighted her large family as much as her brilliant legal mind and impeccable credentials. How odd it seems to us today that someone poised to assume a position of such significance be recognized for her personal life as much as her professional one. And yet, that’s the point. Or at least it had been for millennia.

The insight of ancient political philosophy that character counts, particularly when it comes to public service, strikes contemporary ears as naïve and even laughable in view of our presidential campaign. But when one considers why the ancients put such a premium on character, particularly among those serving the public in the political realm, it makes more sense. There are, of course, many lines of work in which a person’s character plays no direct role in the product. Regrettably, intelligence does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with upstanding character; nor do technical skills. So the brightest scholars and scientists might disappoint us with less than sterling examples of moral behavior, but we would still look to them as reliable experts in their fields. The same is true of a musician, a carpenter, a doctor. When one has a serious illness, one looks for the best diagnostician, not the best bedside manner. The political sphere, however, is different. A worthy public servant ought to possess a certain degree of self-mastery. How else can one consistently place the public good ahead of self-interest? We have all seen enough of what happens when our public representatives fail to do this.

In the case of Judge Barrett, it seems, we need not worry. In countless of her public statements, she has clearly identified her position as servant—whether as professor, judge, wife, or mother: she constantly strives to seek the good of others. Especially noteworthy is her remark about her reaction to President Donald Trump’s nomination of her. One gets the sense that Barrett gave careful consideration to her decision, even as taking a seat on the Court would represent the opportunity of a lifetime. She accepted with humility the chance to serve her country in a way that few others could. At the outset of the hearings, Barrett said plainly: “nothing is more important than my family.” But at the same time, she recognizes that her own personal good and the good of her family are bound up with the larger good of our country. Ultimately, private and public goods should reinforce one another, but the former must often sacrifice for the latter.

In their introductions, the two senators from Barrett’s home state of Indiana and the dean of Notre Dame Law School (where she both studied and taught) all made a point of focusing on Barrett’s good-naturedness and “midwestern values.” Her dedicated work ethic paired with honesty and open-mindedness, apparently, make for a winning combination in whatever capacity she serves. Throughout the week’s proceedings, many noted Barrett’s outstanding legal acumen. But that gift alone is insufficient to entrust her with the responsibilities that come with a lifetime appointment to our highest court. That is why her personal life is fair game. That is why she put herself and her family through the grueling process of confirmation hearings.

 Democratic senators went to great lengths to express concern and even cast doubt on Barrett’s capacity for judicial restraint. Somewhere in their strained efforts lurks a fair question: How can we be confident that she will decide cases according to the rule of law, and not according to personal policy preferences? Besides her repeated promises, we can expect with reasonable certainty that Judge Barrett will not overstep her office as justice because she is, as Dean O’Hara put it, “a woman who lives an integrated life.” The woman who is selfless enough to raise seven children should know how to check her own interests on the Court as well. The kind of character necessary to practice humility before the law comes not from a degree or a clerkship, but rather from a life spent cultivating habits of generosity, self-control, and prudence—both at home and on the job.


Kelly Connelly teaches philosophy at Manhattanville College. She and her husband have six children. 

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