Justice Amy Coney Barrett talks Supreme Court ethics code in visit to UMN amid protesters

Two people sit and talk
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett speaks with University of Minnesota law professor Robert Stein at Northrop on Monday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett largely avoided discussing hot-button issues like abortion and affirmative action during an on-stage interview at the University of Minnesota on Monday.

Barrett is part of the conservative majority that overturned Roe v. Wade, and her visit drew protesters both inside and outside of Northrop.

Justice Barrett sat down for an hour-long conversation with Robert Stein, a University of Minnesota professor and past law school dean. Stein’s lecture series has featured Supreme Court justices from across the ideological spectrum, beginning nearly a decade ago with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. 

After Ginsburg’s death in 2020, former President Donald Trump appointed Barrett to replace her, cementing a 6-3 conservative majority. In the late 1990s, Barrett clerked for Scalia and said she still embraces his ideas of textualism and originalism — where judges interpret laws and the Constitution based on their ordinary meaning and understanding.

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“There would be very little difference between us if you asked about the central role of the judge to adhere to the text when the text has a clear answer and to not impose one’s own view on the law, to respect the law,” Barrett said.

Around 200 protesters who gathered outside the auditorium said Barrett did impose her anti-abortion views on all Americans in the Dobbs decision last year when she voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. Shortly after the interview started, about a half dozen abortion rights supporters unfurled a banner and began chanting from a balcony.

After repeated warnings, police escorted a half dozen people outside and the conversation resumed about two minutes later. There were no other interruptions.

A protestor holds a sign that says "I dissent"
People gathered outside of the Univeristy of Minnesota’s Northrop on Monday to protest U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s visit to campus. The university’s law school invited Barrett to speak at the 2023 Stein Lecture, an annual event.
Kyre Johnson | MPR News

Students and activists were there not only to protest Barrett’s visit, but also to make their voices heard about a variety of issues, including reproductive rights and affirmative action.

“Amy Coney Barrett has really stripped away the rights of a lot of my friends and my family,” said Alessia Guzman Huaman, an organizer with Minnesota Abortion Action Committee. “I’m really angered to see her here and have a platform.”

Stein did not ask Barrett specifically about her reasoning in the Dobbs decision. But he did ask her more generally about how much weight she gives to long-standing Supreme Court precedents. She said the court has guidelines for deciding that. 

“There are things like, is it right or is it wrong. Because it obviously only becomes a live question if the prior case was wrong. And then if it was wrongly decided, you ask about what the effects of that error are having on the law today,” she said.

Barrett said that if the court had never reversed its past decisions, there’d be no Brown v. Board of Education — which overturned school segregation — or Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage. 

Stein also asked Barrett whether she supports an ethics code for the U.S. Supreme Court. In April, ProPublica reported that for 20 years real estate tycoon and Republican donor Harlan Crow had treated Justice Clarence Thomas to luxury vacations. Subsequent reporting found that Thomas accepted similar trips from other wealthy associates without disclosing them.

Barrett said an ethics code would be a good idea, but added that she couldn’t say when they would implement one.

“All nine justices are very committed to the highest standards of ethical conduct, and we’re in agreement about what to do. And that we want to continue to follow the highest ethical standards,” she said.

Despite sharp partisanship in the country and ideological differences on the court, Barrett says it remains a collegial institution. That’s a narrative that Chief Justice John Roberts also emphasized when he visited the U in 2018.

Barrett said her colleagues all welcomed her to the court when she was sworn in three years ago.

“One of the things that meant a lot to me in the beginning was that it was right around Halloween and Justice Sotomayor, and she had made bags of Halloween candy for each one of my children.”

Barrett said because the justices work so closely together, they see each other as people, not as embodiments of ideas with which they they disagree. Those disagreements, she said, remain on the pages of majority and dissenting opinions.