Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
Amy Coney Barrett received money for speaking several times in front of a program run by a deeply conservative Christian organization that helped create the law at the center of a Supreme Court case that’s threatening to eradicate legalized abortion across the U.S.
The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) describes itself as a bastion of “advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith,” but it’s more than that. Over the last several years, it’s emerged as the powerhouse legal arm of the American right wing. It has deep pockets, employs dozens of lawyers worldwide, and is affiliated with thousands more. Devoted to fighting the GOP’s so-called “culture wars” over issues like abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, it’s been designated an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Since 2011, Barrett has spoken to students at ADF’s Blackstone Legal Fellowship Program five times, according to disclosure forms that Barrett filed to the Senate Judiciary Committee ahead of her SCOTUS confirmation hearing last year. She last spoke to them in 2016, before she was confirmed in 2017 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
Ahead of that 2017 confirmation, Barrett submitted a financial disclosure form to the Senate that said between 2015 and 2016, she’d received two payments from the ADF, each for $2,100, the Washington Post reported.
The ADF is now clearly a fan of Barrett. When she was confirmed to the Supreme Court last October, ADF President and CEO Michael P. Farris congratulated her.
“We are hopeful that she with other justices will uphold Americans’ fundamental freedoms, including free speech, religious freedom, parental rights, and the right to life from conception to natural death,” Farris said in a statement at the time.
The ADF didn’t immediately reply to a VICE News’ request for comment on this story.
The new Supreme Court case that could undermine legalized abortion, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, deals with a 2018 Mississippi law that banned abortions after just 15 weeks of pregnancy, without exceptions for rape or incest. The case threatens to hollow out or even overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, which blocks states from enacting abortion bans that early on in pregnancy. If Roe falls, states will once again have the ability to freely regulate abortion; the Center for Reproductive Rights estimates that about less than half of U.S. states would have abortion protections.
At a 2018 conference, an official with the ADF took credit for crafting the Mississippi 15-week ban.
“I can guarantee you that they will not be able to ignore a 15-week limitation, which is in essence limiting abortion to the first trimester,” Denise Burke, senior counsel at ADF, told a panel at the Evangelicals for Life conference in Washington, D.C., according to the Jackson Free Press. “We're kind of basically baiting them, ‘Come on, fight us on turf that we have already set up and established.’ I am happy to say the first 15-week limitation based on our model language was just introduced in the state of Mississippi this week.”
Barrett’s ties to the ADF, as well as the ADF’s connection to the Mississippi ban, were first resurfaced earlier this week in Judd Legum's Popular Information newsletter.
The Mississippi ban has been blocked virtually since its passage, thanks to court challenges. But that’s all part of the plan.
After Republicans took over statehouses across the country a decade ago, they first tried to chip away at abortion through incremental laws that made abortion more difficult to access. But in recent years, conservatives have grown bolder and started passing bills that banned almost all abortions at 15 weeks, six weeks, or even earlier, in a deliberate effort to give the Supreme Court a vehicle to reconsider Roe.
Burke even admitted that strategy in the 2018 conference. “We have a strategic plan, that is a comprehensive, start-to-finish, from when we’re considering legislation all the way up to the Supreme Court, to challenge Roe,” she told panelists, according to Right Wing Watch.
Now, Barrett will have the chance to directly contribute to making sure that strategy succeeds. But Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School who studies lawyers’ ethics, told VICE News she doesn’t think Barrett would or should necessarily recuse herself from Dobbs, despite her past relationship to the ADF.
“I just don’t think this rises to the level of a conflict,” Roiphe said. “Really what is bothering people is not so much—my guess—her connection to this organization as much as it is her views on abortion, which we all know.”
Barrett has repeatedly indicated that she is personally opposed to abortion, although she also stressed during her confirmation hearing that she would try to set aside her personal convictions and rule impartially.
If Barrett were to recuse herself, Roiphe said, it could even backfire and undermine the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, rather than strengthen it. Rather than posing an ethics problem, it becomes an optics issue. In Roiphe’s view, a Barrett recusal could affirm people’s beliefs that the Trump nominee is wildly politicized, and ultimately undermine the entire idea of an impartial judicial system—at a time when the Supreme Court is already struggling to maintain Americans’ trust and confidence.
“The mere fact that somebody has never publicly expressed his or her position on abortion doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is a better judge,” Roiphe said.
“I’m not suggesting that it’s not political. But I also don’t think it’s entirely ridiculous what she was saying in her confirmation hearing, which is [that] she tries.”
Barrett has previously been questioned about her connections to the ADF. During her confirmation hearing last year, Democratic Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Barrett if she knew about the ADF’s “decades-long efforts to recriminalize homosexuality.” (In 2003, the ADF filed a brief in the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas that supported keeping sodomy criminalized. A few ADF officials, who have since left the organization, have also linked homosexuality to pedophilia, according to the SPLC.)
Barrett told Leahy she was not aware of those efforts. But that was a curious thing to say, given that she’d clearly been aware of them since at least 2017. That’s when, during her confirmation hearing for a seat on the 7th Circuit, Barrett was directly asked about the ADF’s opposition to LGBTQ+ rights. She seemed to plead ignorance then as well.
“I’m invited to give a lot of talks as a law professor, and it is not—I don’t know what all of ADF’s policy positions are,” Barrett said at the time. “It has never been my practice to investigate all of the policy positions of a group that invites me to speak.”