Judicial Crisis Network’s Carrie Severino didn’t exactly have her Cecile B. DeMille closeup moment during the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings. But it was hard to miss her.
Severino’s name was frequently invoked during the hearings by Justice Barrett’s opponents. Senator Sheldon Whitehead, the Rhode Island Democrat, for example, portrayed Severino as part of a “dark money” conspiracy plotting to get Barrett on the Supreme Court.
While Whitehouse didn’t brandish the Judicial Crisis Network president’s high school yearbook, his message about the sinister Severino couldn’t have been clearer: Citing Severino by name, he charged that Judicial Crisis Network and the Federalist Society are raking in millions of dollars in “anonymous donations” to support judicial nominations of judges who uphold an originalist interpretation of the Constitution.
Which they have every right to do, as Severino will quickly remind you. Whitehouse, in fact, inadvertently made the point for those who argue that donors should have the right to protect their privacy and safety by being able to remain anonymous.
When a confirmation hearing ends–especially one as chaotic as with Kavanaugh–that is just the beginning of the battle for public opinion, according to Severino. That was one reason for Justice on Trial.
In person, Severino doesn’t seem like a duplicitous doyenne of dark money determined to wreck the justice system. In fact, she comes across a little like Amy Coney Barrett– always smartly dressed in classic, stylish yet modest frocks, her hair worn straight and shoulder-length. She is a legal scholar, practicing Catholic, and mother—she has six children to Barrett’s seven—and is also married to a lawyer, Roger Severino, whom she met at Harvard Law. While Barrett clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Severino clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas, who swore in Barrett in a special White House ceremony the evening of the Senate vote. Roger Severino is Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Severinos were recently hailed, in a surprisingly friendly New York Times article, as a “D.C. conservative power-couple.”
Like Barrett, Carrie writes extensively on the law, though Severino has ventured into the field of bestseller-dom. She is coauthor, with Mollie Hemingway, of Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court. Severino and Hemingway, a senior editor at The Federalist and Fox News contributor, met at the Kirkpatrick Society, a women’s discussion group founded by Mary Eberstadt. The meetings are currently in abeyance. “I really want to get back to having more in-person meetings of the Kirkpatrick Society,” Severino says wistfully. Indeed, she regards her friendship with Hemingway and their resulting book “as a testament to the importance of groups like the Kirkpatrick society in connecting conservative women for friendship and mentoring.”
Initially, Severino suggested Hemingway write a book about the Kavanaugh confirmation battle. “I said I could be a source, and Mollie said, I think as a way of letting me down nicely, ‘I could only do the book if you coauthored it with me.’ So, after talking to Roger, I called her bluff. We decided to do it together. Neither of us knew how it was going to work with two authors. It ended up working amazingly well, with a consistent voice.” They used a layered approach with each writing outlines and drafts.
When a confirmation hearing ends–especially one as chaotic as with Kavanaugh–that is just the beginning of the battle for public opinion. That was one reason for the book. “I knew from having been familiar with the Thomas confirmation hearing and what then happened afterwards that winning the confirmation is not actually the end of the story,” says Severino. “The Left, after Thomas was confirmed, did not just pack up and go home. And they didn’t just say, ‘Well, better luck next time.’ They engaged in a decades-long career of disinformation, of rewriting history, about what that confirmation process was like, up to and including an HBO documentary, or dramatization movie about it.
“I think court-packing is the real existential threat. It’s hard to imagine pulling back from that precipice once – effectively, once they throw us off of it.”
“At the time of Justice Thomas’ confirmation,” she continues, “Americans 2 to 1 believed Clarence Thomas over Anita Hill, including men and women, including black and white. These numbers held across the board. I think if you took polls today, the way that history has been rewritten by the Left, you probably get very different numbers. So, I knew that the next phase was just beginning on October 6th, when Justice Kavanaugh was confirmed, because they were going to immediately start threatening his impeachment. There were multiple groups of reporters who were at the same institutions that had helped launch the attacks on Kavanaugh who were going to be then digging for every bit of dirt they could to try to relitigate the whole issue. So, we wanted to get there and write the true story before a false narrative could set in.
“That’s why we did so much exhaustive research, speaking to everyone we could. And we also knew that we had something of an advantage because a lot of the people involved in the process didn’t trust reporters at the New York Times or Washington Post, didn’t want them anywhere near them, because they sawthe dishonesty with which the confirmation process had been handled.”
The epic nastiness of the Kavanaugh hearing may have helped Barrett, Severino says. “I think partly because they so profoundly overplayed their hand, and botched the Kavanaugh confirmation, Justice Barrett actually was able to get through without as many of the really ugly attacks. Obviously, they weren’t going to go down the same route of making sexual assault allegations, or maybe not obviously, against her at least directly. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have gone against someone who was close to her. But I think they realized how badly that went with the Kavanaugh confirmation and so that in some ways smoothed the way for the Barrett confirmation.”
During the Barrett confirmation hearing, Democrats asked questions on every conceivable subject—global warming, whether somebody will be able to get his insulin, Barrett’s opinions on transgenders, etc. All of these are undoubtedly important. But a judge’s opinions on these subjects, in an originalist context, have absolutely nothing to do with how a judge should rule.
“Simultaneously, while thinking about a career, I was in the process of becoming Catholic,” she says.
Says Severino, “It’s unclear whether the members of the Committee asking those questions had forgotten what the Court was for, had never knew what the Court was for, or unfortunately, what seems more likely, they just simply knew what polls well and viewed this not as an exercise in confirming a Supreme Court justice as much as a part of their campaign strategy and their get-out-the-vote effort. So, I think that’s maybe a cynical view of it, but unfortunately, I think it might be borne out by just what we saw there.”
Severino worries that, as much bitter controversy as there has been surrounding Court appointments in recent years, worse may be in the future. “I think court-packing is the real existential threat here, right? It’s hard to imagine pulling back from that precipice once – effectively, once they throw us off of it.”
Severino, 43, grew up in Michigan, the daughter of an oncologist father and a mother who was a nurse. Carrie went to Duke University and, intending to pursue the family career path, started out in pre-med. “My junior year it was sort of a crisis in several ways,” she recalls. “One, I got to the point where I had to fish or cut bait on the med school thing. You have to start applying to med school your junior year. I started studying for the MCAT, thinking through whether this was the direction I want my career to go. And a big part of my consideration was knowing that one day I wanted to get married and have a family. I knew how busy medicine could be, and I wanted to have a career that had a little more flexibility with it, that had more options. There are options to be a part-time doctor, but it’s harder.”
Severino was facing another crisis in her life. “Simultaneously, while thinking about a career, I was in the process of becoming Catholic,” she says. “I was dating a guy at the time who is now a Dominican priest, actually, and I was confronted with the idea that the Catholic Church could have any claim on truth, which wasn’t something I had ever considered before. I was finally meeting Catholics who actually took their faith seriously and having to seriously answer questions about some of the truth claims of the Church, reading through the Bible, and debating some of these issues. Some of it was just hearing what the Church actually taught on topics. So, you know, once I understood what the Church taught about contraception, my response is, ‘Wow, this is so beautiful it must be true.’ So, I was rethinking a decades-long life path in terms of my career ideas and also having to rethink a lot of what I had assumed about my faith at the same time. It was a momentous year. It was challenging. I could see the dominoes falling.” Severino was received into the Catholic Church on September 26th, 1999.
She had not yet made up her mind about the law. Immediately after Duke, she studied linguistics at Michigan State, her parents’ alma mater. (She has a master’s degree in linguistics.) Carrie took both the MCAT and LCAT preliminary exams and ended up doing better on the latter. Still, she considered a career as a Ph.D. in linguistics but instead was accepted by Harvard Law School. Roger Severino was already at Harvard Law. “I met Roger initially because he was the president of the school’s prolife and religious liberty club. The issue of religious freedom wasn’t yet on a lot of people’s radars because it hadn’t been as directly under attack as it is now. It used to be an overwhelmingly bipartisan issue, as evidenced by the near-unanimous support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), including by people like Clinton and Schumer.”
During the Barrett confirmation hearing, Severino was careful to maintain public silence about a personal challenge: a recent diagnosis of breast cancer.
Carrie graduated cum laude from Harvard Law in 2004 and went immediately to clerk for Judge David B. Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Severino, who had worked for Becket during law school, did some contract work for Becket after that while home with her oldest daughter. She clerked for Thomas from 2007-08. She had an Olin fellowship before being hired by JCN.
Carrie had wrestled with what career path she would pursue. “Initially,” she says, “I thought I wanted to teach law, much like I was going to teach linguistics. I knew I didn’t want to be a corporate lawyer or anything that was incompatible with my idea of how I wanted to have a family. So, I was going to teach. I was getting ready to go on the market, and it was so frustrating because, as a conservative going into legal academia, it’s very, very difficult, even for someone who has a Supreme Court clerkship under her belt to be considered. Law schools are overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly liberal. It’s very difficult as a conservative to get hired if you are known as a conservative.”
For Carrie, the career conundrum was resolved in 2014, when Judicial Crisis Network offered Carrie a job as chief legal counsel and policy director. JCN, originally known as Judicial Confirmation Network, was founded in 2005 to help confirm George W. Bush judicial appointees. JCN has been a huge factor in helping to get President Donald Trump’s appointees confirmed. JCN sums up its mission on its website this way: “Our commitment is to the Constitution and the Founders’ vision of a nation of limited government; dedicated to the rule of law; with a fair and impartial judiciary. Every American deserves equal justice under law.” Carrie became president of JCN in 2020.
During the Barrett confirmation hearing, Severino was careful to maintain a degree of privacy about a personal matter: a recent diagnosis of breast cancer. But she ready to talk about it now. “Apparently my diagnosis is already out there on the internet anyway,” she says, “thanks to a prayer request posted by my parents’ church, but also now that it wouldn’t distract from ACB or RBG’s own cancer struggle I’m fine with sharing it because I know it’s been an encouragement to me to hear from other women who have walked this path. The bottom line is that I’m in the middle of chemo now and anticipating surgery and radiation next year. My tumor type is one that typically is very responsive to chemotherapy and that has been my experience as well – it has already shrunk dramatically.
“As strange as it sounds,” she continues, “2020 has been a good year to go through this because everyone is being conscious of preventing infection and I’ve been able to participate much more fully in this confirmation process than I would have in any other year because so many meetings and even TV production has gone virtual. Where once I would have spent my days shuttling from one studio, meeting, or hearing to another in the heat of a confirmation, this time I only had to shuttle from my office for zoom or Skype to a mobile studio van. And at a time where managing fatigue was important it was relatively easy to schedule in breaks for a nap between interviews which would have been hard if I was on the go. And the fact that so many activities have been canceled socially and with the kids as well means I don’t have FOMO or feel like I have to cut their schedules back to accommodate the logistics when I’m not at full speed. It has been a good time to focus on family time and appreciate the amazing support network of friends and family that we have.”
Severino lives in the Virginia suburbs with the other half of DC’s new power couple and their six children. As much as we might wish the sturm und drang over our courts would quieten, it’s not going to any time soon. So, let’s just be thankful that two very similar women—Amy Coney Barrett, and Carrie Severino—are in positions to represent the very best in the American legal system.