The fourth day of the Senate hearings to consider the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court marked a de-escalation of tension between Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee as expert witnesses were called in place of Judge Barrett herself.
Witnesses were selected by both Democratic and Republican members of the committee and each offered testimony that either supported or opposed her confirmation to the Court. While this is all standard practice for judicial confirmation hearings, there was one witness on Thursday afternoon that clearly brought the house down, eliciting an emotional response even from Chairman Lindsey Graham.
Laura Wolk, a former student of Judge Barrett, who has also clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, described a mentor and professional woman who not only educated her and guided her professionally but helped make possible an impossible career in law for Wolk.
Wolk is completely blind and described the unfathomable obstacles and stress she faced when she first attended Notre Dame Law School, where Barrett was a professor.
"In part because of her unwavering support, I am the first blind woman to serve as a law clerk on the Supreme Court of the United States," Wolk said, referencing her braille notes as she spoke. "It is now my immense privilege to appear before you in support of Judge Barrett's nomination to that same, great institution."
But it isn't just her qualifications that make her an ideal candidate to sit on the Court, Wolk said.
"The country will receive something far greater than an unparalleled legal mind. It will gain the service of one of the kindest individuals I have ever known. Her brilliance is matched only by her compassion and her integrity is unassailable," Wolk said. "I am not speaking in mere abstractions here. Rather, I have experienced these characteristics first-hand with life-changing results."
Wolk, whose confidence and poise during the Senate hearing greatly overshadowed her inability to see, reminded the committee that despite her great success, she does rely on technology in order to keep up the pace with her colleagues and peers. When she first arrived at Notre Dame, she said, the technology she needed and expected from the university was not available.
"Overnight, I found myself struggling to keep up in class, following increasingly behind with each passing hour. I needed help and I needed it fast," Wolk said. "I had been Judge Barrett's student only for a few weeks, but her graciousness and warmth gave me hope that she could provide me with that assistance."
And Wolk was right, she said, as she found an incredibly compassionate listener in her teacher. She felt the unusual sense of disarming that even allowed her to ask for assistance, something she said as a disabled person, she rarely did.
"When I finished, Judge Barrett looked at me intently, 'Laura,' she said, with the same measured conviction we have seen her display through her nomination process, 'this is no longer your problem. It is my problem.'"
"I cannot capture adequately the relief that washed over me at her words," Wolk said. Though through her experience in life, she still remained skeptical of Barrett's generous offer. She had been let down before after similar offers.
"Not so with Judge Barrett," Wolk said. "Anyone who has interacted with her knows that she is a woman of her word. She means what she says, and she says what she means." Wolk pointed out, as a testament to Barrett's humility, she still doesn't know what her teacher did to make sure that the needed technology promptly found its way to her.
Wolk said it was that technology and that advocacy by Barrett that cleared her path to success and eventually opened the door to a clerkship on the Supreme Court. But Barrett's help in that instance wasn't a singular instance of her gracious spirit, Wolk said.
"She has remained a constant source of strength, encouragement, and solace as I have pursued professional and personal opportunities with no roadmap to guide me. Through her mentorship, she has given me a gift of immeasurable value, the ability to live an abundant life with the potential to break down barriers so that I can leave this world a better place than I found it."
Wolk assured the committee that her experience with Judge Barrett as a mentor was not unique.
"Those who have had the benefit of knowing Amy Coney Barrett understand that she possesses a boundless font of energy and a radical sense of love that she is ever ready to pour out on those lucky enough to call her teacher, boss, family, and friend."
"Judge Barrett will serve this country with distinction, not only because of her intellectual prowess but also because of her ability to treat everyone as an equal, deserving of complete respect," Wolk concluded. "As a beneficiary of both of these qualities, I urge you to confirm judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the United States."