• October 27, 2020

Amy Coney Barrett Faces Heat on Marijuana, Guns, and Voting Rights

 Amy Coney Barrett Faces Heat on Marijuana, Guns, and Voting Rights

Judge Amy Coney Barrett leaves her Supreme Court nomination hearing during a break this week. Photo by Matt Laslo

Senate Democrats spent the bulk of this week hammering Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on whether or not she’ll vote to overturn the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). While that’s the most pressing case facing the Court just after the election, many Democrats are also terrified her appointment could set racial justice efforts, attempts to increase voting access, and even efforts to end the war on ‘drugs’ back.

“In 2017, there were more possession of marijuana arrests in America than all the violent crime arrests combined; overwhelmingly and disproportionately African American people,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told the nominee. “You see that if a Black person is not more likely to use marijuana, but they’re more likely to be convicted of a felony for it – at some three to four times the rate – I hope you can see that that means that they’re going to be more likely to lose other liberties, other rights. It so deeply affects their lives.”

The former Democratic presidential candidate pressed the judge on her views on criminal justice reform efforts and the war on ‘drugs,’ which Booker lambasted as racist to its core.  

“[It] really is a war on Black and Brown people, because of the outrageous disparities. And there’s no difference between Blacks and whites for using drugs – or even dealing drugs in America – but Blacks are multiple times more likely to be arrested,” Booker said.  

The Senate Judiciary Committee member then recounted how there was a lot of experimenting with various substances among his mostly white and affluent classmates while he attended Stanford but “few arrests.” The former mayor and current resident of Newark went on to highlight the high incarceration rate in his own neighborhood.

“In low income communities, like the one I live in, equal drug use, but much [sp.] more arrests,” Booker said.

White Powder for Whites; Cells for Blacks

Booker then ripped on the decades-long disparity that’s existed between the mostly Black folks who get caught with crack cocaine, even as their white counterparts receive a fraction of the punishment for getting busted with powder cocaine. The disparity used to be 100:1, but it now sits at 18:1.

“Someone caught with the amount of crack cocaine the size of a candy bar would get roughly the same sentence as someone caught with a briefcase full of powdered cocaine,” Booker lamented.  

The current judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit was then pressed on a blog she wrote on this obvious disparity – and how resolving it could free some 20,000 inmates.

“But never in the blog article, did you mention that this was unjust. There was no deference to how serious this is for the 20,000 Americans – 98% of them who are Black and Brown – you just questioned: Why are we doing this?” Booker asked. “Can you tell me why?”

Coney Barrett was having none of that. She told Booker – and the other Judiciary Committee members – that the post was never meant to be an exhaustive, scholarly treatise.

“It wasn’t an in-depth exploration of the crack/cocaine disparity or anything like that. It was simply pointing out the administrative hurdles, because my husband was…a federal prosecutor at the time and that had been table talk at our house; just kind of the complexities of retroactively going back. So it wasn’t a policy statement,” Coney Barrett said. “It was simply identifying the administrative hurdles because they’re clearly – whenever you apply retroactive reform, there are administrative hurdles going forward.”

Booker urged her to think more broadly about the system, which he says is unjust, racist, and ripples throughout all of society.

“These issues of bias in our criminal justice system are manifested really in many different aspects of the system, from police misconduct and unlawful use of force to prosecutor bias and sentencing disparities –  these are wide and vast areas that have been shown to have such implicit racial bias evident in them,” Booker said.

After Booker ended, a GOP senator gave Coney Barrett some time to respond directly to Booker.

“I unequivocally condemn racism and want to do everything that I can in my own capacity personally and as a judge to end it,” Coney Barrett said.  

It’s not just the war on drugs. It’s also about basic rights for minorities, according to Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois who pressed Coney Barrett on the racial tension on display across America.  

“I just don’t believe you can be as passionate about originalism and the history behind language that we’ve had for decades, if not centuries,” Durbin said, “without having some thought about where we stand today.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) questions Amy Coney Barrett on voting and gun rights.

Durbin asked the judge her reaction to the brutal video that surfaced this summer of George Floyd being killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

“As you might imagine, given that I have two Black children, that was very, very personal for my family,” Coney Barrett responded.

“My children to this point in their lives have had the benefit of growing up in a cocoon where they have not yet experienced hatred or violence,” the judge testified. “And for Vivian to understand that there would be a risk to her brother or the son she might have one day of that kind of brutality has been an ongoing conversation, and it’s a difficult one for us; like it is for Americans all over the country.”

Gun Rights or Voting Rights?

Durbin also asked the Supreme Court nominee whether she thinks 2nd Amendment rights are more important than voting rights, because she’s disagreed with other judges and ruled that many felons should regain access to firearms.

With more than 3,200 shootings in Chicago alone so far this year, Durbin highlighted the nation’s loose gun laws that enable guns to be easily – and often illegally – purchased and then transported from Coney Barrett’s home state of Indiana to states like Illinois, even though it has more restrictive gun laws.  

“Unfortunately, these gangbangers and thugs fill up the trunks of their cars with firearms and head into the city of Chicago and kill everyone from infants to older people,” Durbin bemoaned.

Coney Barrett brushed aside the criticism. She told Durbin that her past ruling wouldn’t have allowed violent felons to legally access guns.

“They simply had to make a showing of dangerousness before they did so, and nothing in the opinion opines at all on the legality of background checks, and gun licensing. Those are all separate issues,” the judge testified.

Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham lauded Coney Barrett’s nuanced response while taking questions from reporters in the hall outside the hearing room.

“I thought that was very curious,” Graham replied to a question from The News Station. “When you look at the history of felonies – and if it’s not dangerous to you, do you take someone’s constitutional rights away? Which is to own a gun. And the idea of ‘how do you vote?’ and what conditions are placed on voting is done at the state level and not the federal level.”

Graham has come under fire for allegedly helping – or at least not trying to stop – local and national GOP party leaders from erecting new hurdles for citizens to cast their ballots.

“I feel very comfortable that she is not antagonistic to voting rights. And she took a reasoned view of felonies in terms of describing the Second Amendment. I’ve always felt that I think she got it right,” Graham said.

Still, Democrats fear Coney Barrett’s stance, because they say she’s being driven by her conservative ideology and not the law.

“The net effect is that in that dissent, she substituted her judgment for the legislatures. She decided that not all felons are dangerous after the legislature clearly intended that felons are dangerous, and they should not have firearms,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the former attorney general of Connecticut, replied to a question from The News Station. “That’s legislating from the bench.”

Matt Laslo

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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