The news that Rhodes College graduate Amy Coney Barrett is one of the top choices – and possibly the favorite – of President Donald Trump to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court came with pride tinged with sadness at her alma mater.
As the debate rages nationally over whether the appointment should be delayed until after the Nov. 3 election, Rhodes College President Marjorie Hass spoke Monday night at a memorial event for Justice Ginsburg. She noted that she felt conflicting emotions about a graduate of the Memphis college succeeding Ginsburg to a seat on the highest court in the land.
She remarked that another speaker talked about Ginsburg’s friendship with Antonin Scalia, despite their political differences, stressing that their friendship was something we could all learn from.
“I found these remarks particularly poignant given the debates many of you are having with each other over the news that Rhodes alumna, Judge Amy Coney Barrett (class of 1994,) is a possible, perhaps even likely, Supreme Court nominee,” Hass said in a statement released Tuesday.
“It is remarkable that a Rhodes graduate should appear at the top of a list of potential Supreme Court nominees, but it is in keeping with a long history of Rhodes connections to the highest court in the land,” she continued. “Alumnus Abe Fortas (class of 1930, who was a Justice from 1964 to 1969) became a Supreme Court justice. Rhodes graduates have clerked for Justices and serve as federal judges.”
She said the college has hosted both Justice Stephen Breyer and the late Justice Antonin Scalia at the campus.
“Judge Coney Barrett participates in this tradition of academic excellence,” Hass said. “As a member of the Rhodes College Class of 1994, she graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Arts in English. While at Rhodes, she was elected to the Honor Council and to the Student Hall of Fame. She has gone on to a career of professional distinction and achievement.”
Barrett, 48, grew up in a suburb of New Orleans and attended a Catholic high school there. After graduation from Rhodes, she graduated summa cum laude from Notre Dame with a law degree in 1997. She was a clerk for Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and then with Scalia in 1998 and 1999 before embarking on a career teaching law at Notre Dame.
Hass said the possibility of Barrett’s appointment has polarized and politicized the students and alumni.
“Many students and alumni have written to me over the past few days,” she said. “The intensely politicized nature of this moment and this nomination, and the very high stakes, mean that the letters are passionately felt and widely divergent in perspective. As I read them, I am deeply aware of the ways a Rhodes education shapes our students. No matter the political alignment of the writer, the letters I am receiving are almost all thoughtful, articulate, and grounded in values beyond mere political advantage.”
She welcomes the “diversity of views you present (which) is to be expected and even welcomed. At Rhodes, we value critical thought, reasoned debate, the development of personal values, and the ability to engage across differences.”
She said above it all, “the Rhodes connection to the Supreme Court is a source of institutional pride. It comes with a consequent responsibility to rise to the great challenges of our time with courage and integrity.”
Looking through the college’s yearbook, the possible next Supreme Court Justice looks like any other student at the liberal arts and sciences college.
Barrett’s one instance of prescience was her appointment to the college’s Honor Council.
Like a court, the council judges whether a student is guilty of lying, cheating or stealing and imposes a sentence ranging from sanctions to expulsion. The council “fosters honorable conduct in all areas of academia and campus life and is committed to the values of truth and honesty,” according to Rhodes College website.
There is a photo in the 1994 yearbook of Barrett and other members of the Honor Council along with a brief article describing the council’s duties.
The college allows students to choose their own photos for the yearbook, resulting in some unusual poses. Some used baby pictures, casual pictures of themselves with friends or even in costume.
For her photo, Barrett posed in front of a pond smiling broadly, holding a loaf of French bread and a bottle of wine. Elsewhere, she is seen in a larger photo smiling as she posed with an unidentified college alumnus.
Barrett is also featured in several photos throughout the yearbook. She sits with fellow members of the Omicron Delta Kappa, a national honorary fraternity that recognizes outstanding seniors. Only three percent of the student body is selected. Nominees were judged on leadership, scholarship, athletics, creative and performing arts, journalism and mass media.
She was quoted in an article about the fraternity saying, “It’s an especially big honor for anyone, because it’s conferred upon students, by students.”