U.S. Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett — who is often mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee — engaged in a public conversation on campus Thursday, emphasizing the role of the Constitution in shaping American history.

“The story of America’s history — its pivotal moments, its triumphs, and its disgraces — can’t be told without the Constitution,” said Barrett, addressing an audience of nearly 250 people in Friend 101.

Barrett discussed a number of cases where conflicting interpretations of the Constitution have sparked debate, from the geographic acquisition of Louisiana and West Virginia to the establishment of the national bank to the fight to abolish slavery. The breadth of topics is a testament to the strength of the Constitution, she said, noting that most national constitutions last only 19 years, while “We’ve had ours for 250.”

“Our Constitution hasn’t set too many things in stone,” she said. “It left a great deal to democratic development.”


Barrett and Princeton Professor Robert P. George joined in a conversation discussing American ideals and the sharp divisions in the country today. “We’re so polarized by so many profound moral issues that both sides regard as human-rights issues,” George said. “So what do you think our prospects are?"

“I have to say, I think our prospects are good,” Barrett said, adding that such an outcome depends on a continued “commitment to the Constitution.”

While she declined to comment on specific cases, including the Students for Fair Admissions suit against Harvard and LGBTQ-rights cases, Barrett did answer students’ questions on the power of the judiciary and its influence beyond U.S. borders.

“There’s no question that the Supreme Court is powerful, but compared to the Congress and the president, I think it’s definitely the weakest of the branches,” Barrett said. “It doesn’t have the power of the purse, it doesn’t have the power of the sword, and courts don’t even enforce their own judgments.”

President Eisgruber ’83 spoke out when Barrett was questioned about her Catholic faith during her Senate confirmation hearings two years ago, urging the Judiciary Committee not to ask nominees about “the religious or spiritual foundations of their jurisprudential views.” 

The talk was delivered as part of the annual James Madison Program’s Walter F. Murphy Lecture in American Constitutionalism series, which celebrates the late McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence emeritus.