Josh Hawley and Civics

The process continues of nomination leading to appointment of a new Associate Justice to fill the US Supreme Court chair that was vacated by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The President’s nominee is Amy Coney Barrett, who appeared on this blog two weeks ago.

The Senate Judiciary Committee began its confirmation hearing a week ago on 12 October with an opening statement by Sen. Josh Hawley.

As Judge Coney Barrett will not be speaking at this point, her face is largely covered by a mask. Hawley’s opening sentences of welcome are warm and friendly, and Coney Barrett smiles in response. How do we know that a masked person is smiling? Because the person in question smiles with her eyes. I find that appealing and significant.

Hawley congratulates her on how calmly she has coped with the nomination process this far, and swings immediately into how the media, and some politicians have focussed on her Catholicism, and whether that will influence her legal decisions. My reaction is that surely no one reaches this legal level if their reputation contains even a sniff of that sort, but this is not where Hawley is going.

Hawley (a lawyer himself) goes to Article VI of the US Constitution which specifically prohibits any religious test attaching to office, and so we get a Civics lecture. He makes the point that being an Article, this precedes the Bill of Rights and accordingly is a cornerstone of the very edifice of the United States. (It occurs to me therefore that any questions that are put to Coney Barrett about her faith are unconstitutional regardless of her answers.) He hails this freedom of faith as being one of the hallmarks of American Exceptionalism.

Hailing, as I do, from a country where even today the monarch or even someone too near it may not be a catholic (not that the monarch has any political power) I marvel at the foresight and wisdom of the US Founding Fathers at building this, nearly a quarter of a millennium ago, into the very bones of their body politic.

This is a good speech, looking forward to constructive questions concerning Coney Barrett’s legal credentials, legal philosophy, and her approach to the law. Hawley closes with the fervent wish that this confirmation process will see the final cessation of any faith issues attaching to appointment to office.

Amy Coney Barrett and SCOTUS

At Jacksonville University on November 3, 2016 – a handful of days before that year’s US Presidential Election – the Public Policy Institute’s Hesburgh Lecture was delivered by Law Professor, Amy Coney Barrett. She was there to discuss the questions and ramifications of the choices the new POTUS would have in replacing Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court Justice who had recently died.

Here we are today, less than a handful of weeks from the next Presidential election. We know who was appointed by President Trump to succeed Scalia: it was Neil Gorsuch. We also remember the outrageous pantomime in 1918 that accompanied the nomination and appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to succeed Anthony Kennedy. And now, with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump has nominated her successor to be Amy Coney Barrett.

The chance to hear the nominee herself – albeit four years ago – lecturing on this is too good to squander.

The Lecture is introduced first by Rick Mullaney, Director of the Institute, who hands over at 1:38 to Pat Kilbane whose task is to introduce the speaker herself. She begins at 4:07, speaks till 18:08, and this is followed by Q&A.

I am often asked about speakers’ mannerisms, and what can be done about them. Over the decades my position has changed a little and now reached a point where essentially I tell speakers not to worry about the existence of a mannerism, only that the audience has noticed it. If you are interesting enough any mannerism becomes unnoticeable to the audience. So what you do about a mannerism is you make your talk more interesting.

Can your vocal quality be a mannerism? If so, Barrett has a mannerism. In the first seconds of my hearing her speak it was almost like Lina Lamont, played by Jean Hagen, in Singin’ in the Rain. That voice has a sharp, acidic, squeaky quality that, despite my conviction on the subject, had me thinking she needed voice coaching like Margaret Thatcher. I was wrong: my conviction was right. Within a minute or two the sound of her voice had become irrelevant, swamped by the value of what she was saying. I never noticed it again. Were I advising her I would tell her to ignore it.

When you have an audience that mixes experts with lay people, leaving you wondering where to pitch the technical scholarship of your arguments, you should do two things: pitch to the least expert and tell the audience you are going to. Barrett does both. There then remains the Einstein challenge: Einstein famously said that if you can’t explain it to a five-year-old you don’t really understand it yourself. What I know about law in general, and the US Constitution and SCOTUS in particular, equates roughly to the square root of not a lot. Yet I managed easily to follow everything she said, and was so absorbed that when she finished and sat with Rick Mullaney for the Q&A, I stayed with it.

It was interesting, enlightening, and fascinating to hear her four-years-younger self explaining to us what could now be facing her.

Is she a good candidate for the position? Don’t know: don’t care. I know nothing of the subject and have zero influence over it. But I can say with a little authority that she is a fine speaker.

Also, Einstein would have been proud.