Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Court that Looks Like Us?

It has been hysterical to watch the Republican Bund react, hysterically, to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Newt, Pat Buchanan, Bill O'Reilly, Rush, and not a few Republican Senators behind the scenes - all in a foaming lather over the prospect of a woman and a Hispanic. Or is it a Hispanic and a woman??!! Watch their eyes rotate in different directions.

There is another piece of Sotomayor's identity, however, that is apparently off-limits even to those who would de-rail her nomination at any cost: she was raised Catholic. If she is confirmed - and I certainly expect she will be - she will join Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Kennedy and Roberts as the 6th Catholic sitting on the bench. Should that trouble us? Should the question of religious affiliation be a matter of public scrutiny during nomination hearings?

Joyce Appleby, a distinguished professor of history at UCLA, has just written a brave op-ed piece for the History News Service, in which she says: yes. The whole piece is available at (full disclosure: I write pretty regularly for HNS), but let me quote from it here:

"In truth, religion is not a factor in the majority of decisions that the court will make each year. It might not be relevant at all had not the Catholic Church, with some other denominations, taken public stands on issues of great political significance today.

Abortion comes immediately to mind, but it's not the only constitutional matter where religion and politics clash. This past week two eminent lawyers, David Boies and Theodore Olson, filed a law suit in Federal District Court in San Francisco as co-counsel for two gay couples challenging California's Proposition 8. The California juarSupreme Court's upholding of the proposition's ban on same-sex marriages triggered the action, which seeks relief for gay couples under the Constitution's protection of equal rights.

The case could go all the way to the Supreme Court, raising questions about the vigorous opposition to same-sex marriages by the church to which five, and possibly six, justices will belong. The death penalty, which the Catholic Church also opposes, is another.

Recusal sounds like a radical measure, but we require judges to withdraw from deliberations whenever a personal interest is involved. Surely ingrained convictions exert more power on judgment than mere financial gain. Many will counter that views on abortion, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty are profound moral commitments, not political opinions. Yet who will argue that religious beliefs and the authority of the Catholic Church will have no bearing on the justices when presented with cases touching these powerful concerns?"

The Catholic Church in this country over the last generation, but particulary in the last 8 years, has injected itself more and more intrusively into our politics, precisely in areas like gay marriage and abortion. Should we be concerned that while less than 30% of American citizens come from Catholic backgrounds but soon 2/3rds of our Supreme Court justices do?


Paz said...

If anything, we should be excited that a Catholic nominee has a different experience than the other Catholics on the bench. There are millions upon millions of Catholics out there who have a faith that inspires them for works of justice. Politically minded Catholicism is not just the domain of the right- look at the way the Church has injected itself in the immigration debate. I would highly recommend that you take a look at NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby ( It's a group of sisters and laypeople who use Catholic Social Thought as a rationale for just and equitable purposes.

It is completely unfair to make the Catholic Church out to be some monolithic bloc that acts in unison with itself. We are a diverse people who's faith inspires us to different courses of action.

Scott said...

I can't help but wonder if the author is insinuating that Catholic judges will be minions of the Church secretly doing their bidding to advance the papacy? Sad, as I thought this country had gotten over that kind of religious bigotry

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