By Shira Wakschlag, Senior Director, Legal Advocacy & General Counsel

On September 26, President Donald Trump announced his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court following the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Judge Barrett’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee began today. The Arc is not taking a position on Judge Barrett’s nomination. As the confirmation process for this lifetime appointment unfolds, here we provide an overview of Judge Barrett’s disability and civil rights record to ensure our members and constituents in the disability community are fully informed about issues that impact people with disabilities.  

Barrett was nominated by President Trump to the Seventh Circuit Court of
Appeals on May 8, 2017 and confirmed by the Senate on October 31, 2017. Prior
to her appointment to the Seventh Circuit, she was a professor at Notre Dame
Law School and a judicial clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme
Court. Given her relatively short time on the bench, this overview includes
sources such as law review articles and public speeches, in addition to key
opinions from her judicial record. 

Health Care

Background: The Arc
has long
fought for
the rights of people with disabilities to
have timely access to high quality, comprehensive, accessible, affordable health
care that meets their individual needs, maximizes health, well-being and
function, increases independence and community participation, and is aligned
with principles of non-discrimination and equity. Through its public
and legal
work, The Arc has vigorously advocated for
the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as essential for people with disabilities in
providing affordable and necessary health care, Medicaid expansion, and
protections for pre-existing conditions and against discrimination. The ACA
also protects against lifetime coverage limits, guarantees coverage of services
for mental health and developmental disabilities, and provides access to
long-term home-based health care, allowing people with disabilities to live in
the community, rather than institutions. The COVID-19 pandemic has only
exacerbated healthcare disparities and underscored the critical importance of
the ACA given the millions of newly unemployed Americans who would not otherwise
be able to afford health insurance, the increase in disabilities and long-term
healthcare needs resulting from COVID-19, and the possibility of discriminatory
medical rationing prohibited by the ACA.

Judge Barret’s Record: Though Judge Barrett has not ruled in a case involving the ACA, she has been a vocal opponent of the law in a number of public forums. In a Notre Dame law review article discussing various approaches to judicial interpretation of statutes, Judge Barrett criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 NFIB v. Sebelius decision upholding the ACA, writing that Chief Justice John Roberts had “pushed the Affordable Care Act beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute. He construed the penalty imposed on those without health insurance as a tax…had he treated the payment as the statute did—as a penalty—he would have had to invalidate the statute as lying beyond Congress’s commerce power.”

In 2015, in King
v. Burwell
,the U.S. Supreme Court again
upheld the ACA, with Chief Justice Roberts writing the majority opinion and
noting: “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance
markets, not to destroy them.” Justice Scalia dissented based on his
interpretation of the law to prohibit subsidies in states with federal
exchanges. Judge Barrett supported
Justice Scalia’s interpretation
in an interview
on public radio. On November 10, the Court will hear oral arguments for California
v. Texas
, a case in which the constitutionality of the
ACA has been challenged, threatening the law’s overall validity. Given Judge
Barrett’s previous remarks on ACA-related cases and the shifting makeup of the
court, the future of the ACA is under great threat, putting the health care of
millions with disabilities in jeopardy.

Federal Disability and Civil Rights Laws

Background: The history of living with a disability in the U.S. has largely been one of discrimination, segregation, and exclusion from education, work, housing, and routine daily activities. Over its 70 year history, The Arc has been instrumental in the enactment of federal disability civil rights laws—including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—which have helped society make great strides in protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities. The Arc has fought vigorously against a variety of attempts to narrow the scope of these protections. A robust interpretation and enforcement of federal disability and other civil rights laws is critical to ensuring the right of people with disabilities to live, work, learn, and play in the community, free from discrimination.

Judge Barrett’s Record: In
2019, Judge Barrett joined
a decision
out of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upholding
the state of Wisconsin’s open-enrollment program allowing public school
students to apply to transfer from their resident school district to a
nonresident district with available space. Plaintiffs—parents of students with
disabilities who were denied transfers based on their special education
needs—challenged the program as discriminatory.  The program allows districts to distinguish
between “regular education and special education spaces” and nonresident
districts can deny a student’s transfer application if the district lacks the
services or space necessary to meet their disability-related needs.

The court found for the state, holding that: “Differential
treatment of special-needs students doesn’t make the program unlawful. Federal
law ‘forbids discrimination based on stereotypes about a handicap, but it does
not forbid decisions based on the actual attributes of the handicap.’ The
program makes decisions based on the actual needs of disabled students, so it
complies with federal law.” The ADA was enacted
to provide a “clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of
discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” The court’s
interpretation that the law is narrowly limited to protecting against
“stereotypes” rather than discrimination based on the actual needs of people
with disabilities is deeply concerning and inconsistent with the purpose of the

More broadly, outside of the disability realm, Judge Barrett has
consistently interpreted civil rights laws extremely narrowly to the detriment
of marginalized groups, including people of color, older adults, and the LGBTQ+

Discrimination in Immigration Policy

Background: In 2018,
the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced the “public charge” rule
which allows the federal government to deny admission into the U.S. based on
the likelihood of an individual relying on public benefits for support. Through
and in the
, The Arc has fought this rule because it discriminates
against people with disabilities by allowing the government to deny admission
into the U.S. based solely on a person’s disability and the use or expected use
of public benefits like Medicaid. It also discourages immigrant families from utilizing
critical public services—such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program, housing assistance, and other important programs—out of
fear of harming their immigration status. Overall, the rule unfairly restructures
immigration in a way that is detrimental to people based on their disability.

Judge Barrett’s Record: Earlier
this year, in Cook County v. Wolf, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld
a preliminary injunction
of the “public charge” rule, holding
that it discriminates against people with disabilities by making it more
difficult for immigrants with significant disabilities to come to the U.S. because
of their increased likelihood of relying on government benefits for support:
“The conclusion is inescapable that the Rule penalizes disabled persons in
contravention of the Rehabilitation Act.” Judge Barrett dissented, writing that
she would vacate the injunction based on her understanding that “DHS’s
definition is a reasonable interpretation of the statutory term ‘public

[1] See, e.g. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. AutoZone (7th Cir. 2017) (denying petition for en banc rehearing of a case in which the lower court ruled for the employer where the EEOC claimed that AutoZone had an unlawful practice of segregating employees by race when it assigned Black employees to stores in Black neighborhoods, which the dissent criticized as an unlawful “separate-but-equal arrangement”); Kleber v. CareFusion Corporation (7th Cir. 2019) (joined majority opinion holding that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects only current employees from discrimination due to disparate impact, not outside job applicants. One dissenting judge criticized the opinion, noting: “Wearing blinders that prevent sensible interpretation of ambiguous statutory language, the majority adopts the improbable view that the Act outlawed employment practices with disparate impacts on older workers, but excluded from that protection everyone not already working for the employer in question.”); Amy Coney Barrett, Hesburgh Lecture, Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute, 2016, available at: (criticizing Obergefell v. Hodges (U.S. 2015)—Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional protection for marriage equality for same sex couples—and noting that Title IX should not be interpreted to extend its protections to transgender people.). Judge Barrett also provided paid speeches in 2015 and 2016 to the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

[2] For more information on Judge Barrett’s disability record, see The Bazelon Center, “Amy Coney Barrett’s Record on Issues Affecting People with Disabilities”

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