Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Catholic supermajority on the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court of the United States has had a Catholic majority since January 2006, when Assoicate Justice Samuel Alito became the fifth Catholic serving simultaneously on the Court. While Alito was awaiting confirmation, I posted some thoughts on what a Catholic majority might mean (or might not mean) for the Court. Now that President Barack Obama has announced his intention to nominate Judge Sonia Sotomayor to succeed Associate Justice David Souter, the Supreme Court may soon possess a two-thirds Catholic membership.

Though I believe that this is a milestone worth noting, I don't expect this change to make much of a difference. As I wrote at the time of the Alito nomination, I think that the prospect that another Catholic could be added to the Supreme Court shows that the religious affiliation of judicial nominees does not matter as much as it may have in the past. The five Catholic justices currently on the Court are not a monolithic group; if they do vote in the same way in particular cases, they do so on the basis of shared jurisprudential principles and not because they believe that there is a "Catholic" position on a particular point of law. Whatever difference the Catholic faith has made in the life of Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor - and I hope that it has made a positive difference for both of them - from a jurisprudential perspective the fact that both are Catholic is about as significant as the fact that both went to Princeton and Yale.

For a somewhat provocative last word on the topic on Catholics and the judiciary, here are some remarks that Associate Justice Antonin Scalia made at Villanova Law School two years ago, relayed via David Gibson at Pontifications and Robert Miller at First Things:
There is no such thing as a 'Catholic judge.' The bottom line is that the Catholic faith seems to me to have little effect on my work as a judge . . . Just as there is no 'Catholic' way to cook a hamburger, I am hard pressed to tell you of a single opinion of mine that would have come out differently if I were not a Catholic.
If I may put my own gloss on Justice Scalia's words, I think the key point is that one should not expect Catholic judges to rule in particular ways simply because they are Catholic. Their Catholicism may inform their legal and political commitments, but any decisions that they hand down from the bench must have a solid legal basis and not simply reflect the judges' personal beliefs or opinions. This is an issue for any judge, Catholic or not, which I suppose simply proves Scalia's point. AMDG.


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