Amy Coney Barrett’s path toward U.S. Supreme Court began at Rhodes College

Lie, cheat or steal at Rhodes College, and the case could make its way to the student-run Honor Council. The group reviews infractions like cheating and plagiarizing and can levy a range of punishments, up to expulsion.

In 1994, her senior year at the private liberal arts college in Memphis, Amy Coney Barrett was elected to the council and served as its vice president. At the time, the council would hear cases within the week of the infraction being reported; trials lasted between 30 minutes and the full day. 

For one case, Barrett (then just Amy Coney) deliberated until 3 a.m. She slept for three hours, woke up and began deliberating again. Rhodes students took the code seriously —  a survey at the time found that of the respondents, 88% of faculty and 92% of students found the code “somewhat or very effective” — and so did she. 

Barrett told as much to a reporter for a story in the college’s magazine, published in 1994: “Presumed honest: A way of life at Rhodes” explores how the Honor Code became a culture.

“The toughest part about being on the Honor Council,” Barrett said in 1994, “is the heavy responsibility. You have the power to affect someone’s life. You want to be absolutely sure you’re doing the right thing by that person.”

Barrett, now a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, entered Rhodes College personally influenced by her parents’ careers — her mother had been a French teacher, her father the first lawyer she’d ever known — and practically influenced by their life circumstances.

It was her time in Memphis at Rhodes College that put her on the path that would later qualify her for a lifetime appointment to the highest court.  

“In my mind, I thought the two coolest things to be would be a high school French teacher or English teacher or a lawyer. But,” Barrett said in a 2019 interview, “I was heavily leaning towards high school teacher, not law, until later in the game.” 

Amy Coney Barrett’s time at Rhodes College

Amy Coney Barrett was nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Barrett graduated magna cum laude from Rhodes College in 1994.

Memphis Commercial Appeal

Barrett chose Rhodes College, she explained in the 2019 interview at the University of Notre Dame, because it wasn’t too far from home — a six-hour stretch of I-55 separates Memphis from hometown Metairie, a New Orleans suburb. She’d been awarded a scholarship, too, which helped since her six younger siblings were enrolled in private schools at the time. A graduate of St. Mary’s Dominican High School, an all-girls Catholic school in New Orleans, Barrett kept up her grandmother and mother’s tradition of going to the school, one kept up now by her nieces.

At Rhodes, she wanted to read, write and conquer an A-minus she’d once gotten in French. So she declared a major in English, minor in French. By the end of her first semester of college, she found a mentor in professor Jennifer Brady, who would later describe Barrett as one of the two top students of her 36-year career, 32 years of which Brady taught at Rhodes. 

“She always struck me as gracious, as honest, as exceptionally motivated and hard-working,” Brady told The Commercial Appeal. “I don’t ever remember her as anything other than just an exceptionally talented student.”

Nine page numbers trail Barrett’s name in the index of her senior yearbook: There’s Honor Council, the Catholic Student Association, homecoming, a group of resident assistants, Sigma Tau Delta, the national English honor society, national honorary fraternity Omicron Delta Kappa, Mortar Board, and something called “Who’s Who,” another group of students also recognized for leadership, excellence and service. In prior years, she was also listed as a member of the sorority Kappa Delta. 

Amy Coney Barrett was involved in many groups while attending Rhodes College, including the sorority Kappa Delta.

Amy Coney Barrett was involved in many groups while attending Rhodes College, including the sorority Kappa Delta.
Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal

Barrett’s literary criticism earned her an award for top senior essay, and she was co-recognized as the top English student in her class, Brady said. 

Elected to the Student Hall of Fame, Barrett’s black and white portrait hangs among six others from the class of 1994 behind a glass case, displayed with decades of other famed students along the walls of the second floor of Rhodes’ Southwestern Hall. 

The college has since recognized her credentials in the wake of her nomination. She’s part of the college’s “tradition of academic excellence,” Rhodes President Marjorie Hass recently wrote, listing her accomplishments at the school. “She has gone on to a career of professional distinction and achievement.”

Some alumni find Barrett’s academic record at Rhodes at odds with the judicial rulings she has made. More than 1,500 alumni, spanning the graduating classes of 1959 to 2020, signed a letter requesting that Hass reaffirm the college’s commitments to its LGBTQ, female and other minority students and graduates “who fear that their rights may be endangered by the lifetime appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the highest court in the land.” 

Alumni citicism: Rhodes administrators, alumni respond to nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court

By slotting some of Barrett’s rulings into categories based on the college’s values of truth, loyalty and service, the letter described how the alumni felt the Supreme Court nominee’s career runs counter to the perceived values Barrett would have learned at Rhodes. One former classmate wrote another piece alleging Barrett’s career also runs counter to the college’s honor code — the one that, as vice president of the Honor Council, Barrett strove to uphold and hold her peers to. 

“Everybody (on the council) is supposed to be on the same side and have equal concern for the accused, the Honor Code itself and the community,” Barrett said in 1994.

Barrett was an analytical, critically thinking college student.

Bryan Coker, now president of Maryville College in east Tennessee, was a year behind Barrett at Rhodes. They served on the Honor Council together and were both resident assistants, but haven’t spoken since college, he said in a statement. He had “no comment” on her nomination.

“I found her to always be fair, responsible, thoughtful, and very conscientious,” Coker said. “While I knew Amy was Catholic, I do not recall any discussions with her about faith or politics. I remember Amy as a very determined and driven person, but also as just a very normal and well-liked Rhodes student.” 

A portrait of Amy Coney Barrett hangs in a student hall of fame display in Southwestern Hall on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, at Rhodes College in Memphis.

A portrait of Amy Coney Barrett hangs in a student hall of fame display in Southwestern Hall on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, at Rhodes College in Memphis.
Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal

In college, Barrett evaluated her future through a pro-con list, she said in 2019. And she kept her options open until the end, taking both the LSAT and the GRE in preparation for paths toward becoming a lawyer or an English professor (instead of high school teacher). 

“When I was a senior, I can distinctly remember being in my dorm room thinking about it,” Barrett said.

Brady, her mentor and former professor, said she would have written her letters of recommendation for either profession. It ended up being for the path that Barrett felt would allow her to leave a more direct impact on the world. 

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“I liked the way that law would enable me to do the reading and writing that I loved, but also be kind of involved in real-world things and real-world policy,” she said, “and shaping of society in a more direct way than I thought teaching English literature would.”

Amy Coney Barrett graduated from Rhodes College in 1994 with a degree in English.

Amy Coney Barrett graduated from Rhodes College in 1994 with a degree in English.
Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal

The statement is reminiscent of the way she described her role on the Honor Council, Brady pointed out. 

“I may not agree, and I don’t agree with a lot of the conclusions she reaches (as a judge),” said Brady, who describes herself as liberal. “But do I think she’s a morally serious person who is weighing things as best she can? Yes, I do.”

For every law school application Barrett submitted, Brady imagines she received an acceptance. Notre Dame made for an interesting choice, Brady said, but Barrett described it as a place that would encourage her both personally and professionally. It was also another way to honor the Catholic roots her family had laid for generations, and was a school Barrett says she loved growing up: “What Catholic doesn’t?” she said in 2019.

Barrett left Rhodes College with the complete collection of Southern writer Truman Capote. The collection was a gift from Brady. As an intimidated first-year student, Barrett took Brady’s course on the novel of manners. She would have read works by authors including Jane Austen, Henry James and Edith Wharton to study “courtship practices in the leisure class, as represented in fiction,” Brady explained.

Capote’s famous “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — a “fun novella to throw in,” Brady said — left an impression on Barrett, who recalled presenting a project on the book. 

“I was sure that it had gone awfully, but she sought me out afterward, and she liked what I had done,” Barrett said. 

From Brady, she took the lesson on how to be a good mentor: “I think that’s about time spent,” Barrett said in 2019. 

Opinion: Amy Coney Barrett was our professor. She’ll serve America as well as she served her students.

Should Barrett be confirmed, “she will be one of the most distinguished people to have graduated in the last 30 years from the college,” said Brady, who thinks her nomination reflects well on her education at Rhodes. 

Who is Amy Coney Barrett?

President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday, September 26, 2020.

Memphis Commercial Appeal

She holds that idea alongside another. 

“The process of rushing her nomination to the Supreme Court seems to me opportunistic, and cynical in the extreme. That doesn’t mean I don’t think she’s qualified,” Brady said. “I think she’s highly qualified.”

Hass, Rhodes’ president, issued a response to the 1,500-some alumni who wrote the letter critical of Barret’s nomination. Hass affirmed Coney’s academic prowess at Rhodes: “The college will continue to speak of her with respect and friendship — the same respect and friendship you affirm in your letter.”

Rhodes president: Rhodes College president responds to alumni’s concerns with Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination

She also wrote that it would be in line with Rhodes’ values to continue its “record of rising in support of the rights of members of our community by creating policies to safeguard our students, asserting institutional values, and where appropriate, signing on to amicus briefs to the courts.”

Laura Testino covers education and children’s issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at [email protected] or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino

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