SCOTUS Contender Amy Coney Barrett’s Mixed Record in Criminal Cases
Appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett, a leading contender to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, is a popular choice among conservatives. That fact does not, by itself, tell us much about Barrett’s treatment of criminal defendants’ constitutional and statutory claims.
When it comes to the rights of criminal defendants and the actions of law enforcement agencies, the “conservative” label covers a wide range of attitudes. Although progressives tended to depict Justice Antonin Scalia as an authoritarian ogre, for instance, he sided with defendants in several important Fourth Amendment and Sixth Amendment cases. Neil Gorsuch, the judge President Donald Trump picked to replace Scalia, has shown an even stronger inclination to uphold the rights of the accused and to question the conduct of police officers and prosecutors, repeatedly breaking with fellow conservatives such as Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. By contrast, 5th Circuit Judge James Ho, another candidate on Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees, showed a troubling deference to law enforcement in a 2019 case involving a man killed by Texas sheriff’s deputies.
The opinions Barrett has written in cases brought by criminal defendants and prisoners since joining the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 2017 present a mixed picture. While she is often skeptical of the government’s arguments when it tries to put or keep people in prison, she has sometimes rejected claims by defendants and prisoners that her colleagues found credible.
It is clear from Barrett’s record that she does not reflexively side with the government in criminal cases. In a 2019 opinion, for example, she concluded that Drug Enforcement Administration agents violated the Fourth Amendment when they searched a suspect’s apartment based on the consent of a woman who answered the door but did not live there.
“Is it reasonable for officers to assume that a woman who answers the door in a bathrobe has authority to consent to a search of a male suspect’s residence?” Barrett asked. “We hold that the answer is no. The officers could reasonably assume that the woman had spent the night at the apartment, but that’s about as far as a bathrobe could take them. Without more, it was unreasonable for them to conclude that she and the suspect shared access to or control over the property.”
In another Fourth Amendment case, decided in 2018, Barrett concluded that an anonymous tip did not provide reasonable suspicion for police to stop a car in which they found a man with a felony record who illegally possessed a gun. “The anonymous tip did not justify an immediate stop because the caller’s report was not sufficiently reliable,” she wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. “The caller used a borrowed phone, which would make it difficult to find him, and his sighting of guns did not describe a likely emergency or crime—he reported gun possession, which is lawful.”
In a 2018 case, by contrast, Barrett joined the two other judges on a 7th Circuit panel in rejecting the Fourth Amendment claims of three men who had been convicted of viewing and
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