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Barrett joins Supreme Court with politically charged legal fights looming

Amy Coney Barrett sworn in
Amy Coney Barrett sworn in 09:11

Washington — Judge Amy Coney Barrett officially became Justice Amy Coney Barrett on Tuesday morning, with Chief Justice John Roberts administering the second of two oaths Supreme Court justices are required to take before beginning her work on the high court.

But for Barrett, 48, there will be no slow transition from her seat on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to the nation's highest court, as pending before the justices as she joins them are a slew of disputes involving politically charged — and time-sensitive — issues. 

Barrett was confirmed by the Senate in a near party-line vote, 52-48, and took the constitutional oath of office, administered by Justice Clarence Thomas, at the White House on Monday night. On Tuesday morning, at a private ceremony at the Supreme Court, Roberts administered the judicial oath, with her six other new colleagues looking on from a safe distance and Justice Stephen Breyer listening in on the phone from his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Barrett is expected to jump right into the fray, and was greeted on her first day on the job with a petition from the Board of Elections in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, to recuse herself from consideration of a case involving the state's deadline for mail-in ballots.

On Friday, she will participate in her first closed-door conference with the justices, where they discuss which cases to add to the docket and which to turn away. Then, on Monday, the Supreme Court will convene for its November sitting, which includes arguments — conducted remotely by teleconference because of the coronavirus pandemic — in two blockbuster cases.

Here is what awaits Barrett as she takes her seat on the Supreme Court.

Mail-in ballot deadlines

Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania and North Carolina have each asked the justices to move up the deadlines for mail-in ballots in the two battleground states, yet the Supreme Court has not yet acted on the requests.

The dispute from Pennsylvania is before the Supreme Court for a second time, though now Republicans are asking the high court to rule on the merits of the case. At issue is a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision extending the deadline for mail-in ballots to be accepted by three days. Under the state high court's ruling, mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day will be counted so long as they are received by November 6. Ballots received within that period that lack a postmark or have an unclear postmark are presumed to have been mailed by Election Day and therefore must be accepted, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said.

Republican lawmakers in the state and the Pennsylvania Republican Party asked the justices last month to put that ruling on hold, thereby shortening the deadline for mail-in ballots. But the Supreme Court split 4-4, denying their request. Roberts joined the liberal wing of the bench in leaving the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's ruling in place.

Now, with Barrett taking her seat on the high court, she could be called upon to cast the pivotal vote in the case.

Amy Coney Barrett
Justice Clarence Thomas administers the judicial oath to Amy Coney Barrett during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday, October 26, 2020.  Ken Cedeno/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Like in Pennsylvania, the North Carolina dispute also involves an extension of the deadline for mail-in ballots, but Republicans in the Tar Heel State and the Trump campaign have filed an emergency application to the Supreme Court.

The GOP is asking the high court to block an extension of the state's deadline to receive absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day to November 12. The full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 12-3 to deny a request from the Republican lawmakers, as well as the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, to shorten the deadline for accepting absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day to November 6.

Trump tax returns

For the second time, Mr. Trump has taken his legal brawl with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance over a subpoena to his longtime accountant for years of his business records, including his tax returns, to the Supreme Court.

In July, the high court ruled 7-2 in rejecting the president's claims he has "absolute immunity" from state criminal proceedings while in office, and found Vance can obtain his financial information. But the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts so the president could raise additional arguments.

Earlier this month, a three-judge panel on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected those new arguments and ruled Vance can enforce the subpoena to Mazars USA for the records, but put enforcement on hold to allow Mr. Trump to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Vance is seeking the president's business records, including his tax returns, dating back to 2011 as part of a criminal investigation into his business dealings and hush-money payments made to two women who claimed they had affairs with Mr. Trump years before he was elected.

As expected, the president asked the justices to block the release of his financial information.

Religious liberty and LGBTQ rights

Barrett will participate in oral arguments for the first time as Supreme Court justice on Monday, and just two days later, the court is slated to hear one of the bigger cases of its term: a dispute that stands at the intersection of religious liberty and LGBTQ rights.

The case, known as Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, involves the city's decision to exclude a religious foster care agency, Catholic Social Services, from its foster care system because the agency declines to place foster children with same-sex couples because of its religious objections to gay marriage.

The city cut off foster care referrals to Catholic Social Services in 2018 after learning it didn't work with same-sex couples, and in May of that year, the agency and a group of foster parents sued, arguing Catholic Social Services was targeted by city officials and the decision to halt the referrals was unconstitutional.

But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city and found it did not treat Catholic Social Services worse than it would have treated another organization that didn't work with same-sex couples but had different religious beliefs.

The Affordable Care Act

Two weeks after being sworn in as a justice, Barrett will take part in arguments for the blockbuster dispute over Obamacare that was a focal point of Democrats' campaign of opposition to her nomination.

Brought by a group of red states, with the backing of the Trump administration, the case, California v. Texas, questions the constitutionality of Obamacare's individual mandate. The justices were also asked to decide whether the health care law can stand on its own if the individual mandate is deemed unconstitutional.

During Barrett's confirmation process, Democrats argued a vote to confirm her was effectively a vote to kill Obamacare and strip protections from millions of people with pre-existing conditions. But Barrett declined to give any indication of how she would rule in the case and went to great lengths to separate her past writings on the 2012 Supreme Court decision upholding the law from the current dispute before the high court.

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